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Auckland Light Rail – why? 

In brief
  • Auckland’s Light Rail may take over a decade with expected costs of $15b-$30b to build.
  • How about some clear reasoning why this giant, expensive, and  controversial project is needed?
  • Is a staged roll out another way of scrapping it without saying so? 
  • Are there more important “bread and butter” issues at the moment?

What is it? 

Auckland’s “Tunnelled Light Rail” line is proposed to run from the city centre to Auckland Airport. There would be a total of 18 stops. Trains would run every five minutes. The line between Wynyard Quarter and Mount Roskill would be tunnelled and the rest would be a surface line.

There have been many delays and revisions since the promise of light rail to the airport within a decade, by then candidate Jacinda Ardern, in the lead up to the 2017 general election.  

Enormous costs

Auckland Light Rail - why?  - Centrist
Behind schedule, costs in the billions, maybe more than a decade to build…is light rail really a “bread and butter” Auckland needs right now?

Cost estimates are nearly $15b and about a decade or more till it’s operational. National’s transport critic Simeon Brown says it’s closer to $30b. But the Government argues that congestion alone could cost $65b over 50 years (a meaningless number based on assumptions) and, if growth isn’t facilitated, it will need to be supported elsewhere and likely more expensive… What of the vaunted driverless cars?

The Government considered other proposals like a surface light rail (no tunnelling) that was estimated at $9b, but says the tunnel option offers faster, more frequent journey times and more separation from surface traffic. They also say tunnelling allows for greater surface densification. 

Obligatory rhetoric around co-gov 

In yet another nod to co-governance, the Auckland Light Rail Team page says the Government is working on tasks that include “Partnering” with Māori interests. The FAQ page says Te Tiriti will play a “foundational” role and future phases will include Māori in more active decision making. 

It’s notable that “partnerships” with Māori have been called for at all levels of transport planning. 


The proposal has been defended by Minister for Transport Michael Wood. Judging by media reports, there’s an indication Labour believes they have a mandate to deliver on the project since Ardern’s campaign promise and their subsequent majority win. But the victory doesn’t mean a long term mandate for everything proposed, especially when no one knew the cost. It may be the win was in spite of the project, not because of it. Maybe worth freshening up the “approval” with more clarity?

The Government has also been warned about getting value for money considering it would be the biggest deal ever, by any NZ Government. 

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown has been cool towards the project. He’s more in favour of alternatives like more bus routes and doubts Wellington has the expertise to pull the project off. Brown recently referred to the project as a “dead duck”. ACT concurs, but aren’t opposed to light rail in principle. 

Some suggest  the staged rollout of the project is a signal that it’s been put on the back burner. 

There’s also doubts the environmental benefits will offset the intensive tunnelling the project requires. 

The Taxpayers’ Union has called for the project to be scrapped altogether. 

Isn’t it time for an explanation why a project in the many billions and years away needs doing at a time when “bread and butter” issues are said to be the focus?

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