The demise of Auckland’s light rail project has left a leading advocate and local businesses along the planned route frustrated after more than a decade of stalled progress on public transport upgrades.
Transport Minister Simeon Brown officially scrapped the $14bn light rail project last week, instructing the Crown company tasked with delivering the project to wind up operations.
Brown was fulfilling a campaign promise made by National on the campaign trail.
Twenty-two staff employed at Auckland Light Rail Limited have lost their jobs as a result, a spokesperson for the soon-to-be disestablished agency said.
The Transport Minister told 1News: “It’s a project that’s gone nowhere, despite hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers money being spent on it.”
Reacting to the announcement, a leading public transport advocate told 1News that uncertainty over what would happen in the corridor would continue as a result.
The light rail line had been planned to connect the city centre, Mt Roskill, Onehunga, Mangere and Auckland Airport.
The director of advocacy group Greater Auckland, Matt Lowrie, has long been a critic of the previous government’s failure to deliver on the project.
Lowrie said the need for light rail would inevitably “come back again” and the new Government needed to show a “better plan” for what would happen along the planned line’s route.
“There have been various schemes over the last few decades, and every time they get kicked to the curb. That means businesses and residents are left hanging waiting for a solution.”
The project was intended to reduce congestion, promote more housing redevelopment, and help address bus capacity problems in the CBD.
One part of the city that light rail was meant to benefit was eatery hotspots along Dominion Road – one of Auckland’s most prominent streets.
The owner of restaurant Cazador on the street said she had been willing to accept construction disruption, if it meant certainty about the final outcome.
Rebecca Smidt said other international cities had public transport options, such as light rail or an underground metro, to transport patrons to hospitality businesses.
“We were looking forward to seeing progress in public transport,” she said.
“To have it cancelled with no alternative presented is really disappointing for us.”
She added: “I’ve been part of the management for this business for 10 years and for that whole duration, we’ve had this hovering over us.
“We can’t plan for investment. We don’t know whether we should invest to grow here or whether we should have one eye on another neighbourhood.”
Dominion Road has long been one of Auckland’s busiest bus corridors with buses currently running every five minutes on weekdays. Upgrades had been planned for bus facilities on the street before the introduction of light rail proposals in 2015.
Business association manager Gary Holmes said uncertainty over the plans was a theme for light rail along the street, including property owners.
“For years, they haven’t spent much money on buildings and developing their properties, because of the light rail question. So now, it’s back to square one.”
Auckland Council’s original plan for light rail included a tram-like surface route down the middle of Dominion Road, raising the ire of some businesses due to potential construction disruption.
The government later switched to a more costly underground tunnelled plan instead.
A ‘botched’ project
Lowrie said the previous Labour government dreamed big but failed to deliver on the fundamentals of the project.
In 2017, then prime minister Jacinda Ardern made light rail her first election promise after becoming Labour leader. At the time, she pledged part of the line would be delivered by 2021.
Six years later, Lowrie said his “anger and frustration” about the cancellation was directed at the previous government for “botching” the project.
“The project was ready to be delivered in 2017 when they took it over, and in 2023, at the time of the election, it was further away from delivery than it was six years earlier.
“As a result, we have nothing, whereas had they delivered what was already planned and designed, it would be operating now. And we’d be discussing where else we should be rolling it out to, not should it be cancelled or not,” he said.
The light rail project first originated under Auckland Council in 2015 but was then taken over by the Government during Labour’s first term in government.
Lowrie said the project’s cost and objectives ballooned as a result.
Labour’s transport spokesperson Tangi Utikere told 1News he was disappointed at the new Government’s choice to cancel the project and defended his party’s record.
“When you come across a large infrastructure project, such as this, it’s really important that a lot of the focus at the initial stages is in planning and preparation,” he said.
“It would be foolhardy to go straight into an infrastructure project, without doing necessary checks and balances, and some things do take time.”