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Time to focus on City Rail Link funding, not fast-tracking

Time to focus on City Rail Link funding, not fast-tracking

By Cameron Brewer – Auckland Councillor

When it comes to the City Rail Link every post has been promoted as a winning post. Auckland Mayor Len Brown is now celebrating a saving of $484m with the latest decision to scrap plans for a Newton station and reduce the number of trains.

This saving coupled with the latest increased figures for rail patronage has the Mayor once again pushing hard for a 2016 start date.

While this year’s lift in patronage is good news, let’s not forget it comes off a very low base with rail user numbers actually dipping last year. We are still miles off reaching the Government’s bottom line or the Mayor’s aspirational target – both of which point to a doubling of patronage, or 20m annual trips, in a few short years.

Two years ago Auckland Transport expected to deliver 14.5 million annual rail trips by June this year but we remain three million short of that forecast, despite electrification giving a boost to numbers in recent months.

Last year the Government effectively brought forward the start date of the City Rail Link from 2030 to 2020, and promised to work with Auckland Council to develop a joint business plan in 2017. An emotional Mayor burst in to the council debating chamber to deliver the news, with councillors delivering him a round of applause.

Within six months however he was writing to the Prime Minister believing the start date was no longer good enough and saying he wanted to start construction regardless. He suggested bringing forward $250m of spending and volunteered ratepayers to underwrite the Government’s contribution until 2020. Mr Key wrote back and held the line, reiterating that the Government was committed to funding its 50% from 2020 unless rail patronage and CBD employment growth numbers significantly changed.

Getting the cold shoulder from the Government however wasn’t enough to deter the Mayor. He remains determined to soldier on.

So our funding partner says not now, councillors have unanimously passed a resolution that rules no construction until funding is in place, and ratepayers still have no idea of how they’re expected to pay for their 50%. Yet staggeringly the Mayor is set to propose in the pending draft 10-year Long Term Plan, to start the work first and find the money later.

I firmly believe we should be working to the Government’s more realistic timetable, after doing the joint business case in 2017 as has been agreed. That will give the council time to sort out its funding and that would be the prudent thing to do.

And it’s not as though things aren’t happening. The route has been secured, properties have been purchased, and project design is highly advanced. In fact Auckland ratepayers have already spent $99m on City Rail Link preconstruction work and there's another $70m in this year's budget.

Everyone can see sense in working with Precinct Properties, which will redevelop the Westfield Downtown Shopping Centre opposite Britomart. They want to get on as soon as possible with their high-rise plans and make provision for the rail tunnels as part of their development.

However some of us also can see significant and unfair exposure for ratepayers if we start digging without the Government and without even our own funding sorted.

The Mayor argues the city will grind to a halt if we don’t move quicker. However the council’s own recently commissioned PWC report noted that electrification and the new electric trains “will provide sufficient capacity to accommodate considerable further growth in rail patronage.”

It seems that in the foreseeable future rail capacity is only likely to come under real pressure during what is described as “the peak of the peak” at Britomart. What’s more, PWC noted that this busy period, identified as 7.46am to 8.15am week days, could be easily be offset by Auckland Transport implementing travel demand strategies such as cheaper early bird fares.

Last year the council’s own Consensus Building Group, which is spending $3m to come up alternative ways to address Auckland’s transport funding shortfall, released a report which included interviews with Auckland residents. Tellingly, it concluded that “Aucklanders want to get the best out of existing infrastructure before proceeding with new investments”.

Some of us agree. I would like to see more money going into bus infrastructure, but sadly the likes of a north western bus corridor just keeps getting deferred. The City Rail Link is already gobbling up money that could otherwise be spent on bus-lanes, ferry facilities, cycle and walkways. It’s crazy to think that this financial year 84% of Auckland Transport’s capital expenditure for public transport is going solely into rail, when still only about 1.6% of Aucklanders catch the train according to Census 2013.

Since Aucklanders were introduced to the latest City Rail Link project nearly a decade ago the reported cost of this massive 3.5km twin tunnelling project has gone up five-fold from $500m to $2.4b. It is unrealistic to think that there won’t be more cost escalation.

While the Mayor’s latest trumpeting of savings and patronage are encouraging, overseas experiences show us that this will be a very long and painful project which will endure budget blow-outs and burden future generations with billions of dollars of debt.

With such a costly scenario not discounted by anyone, it would be prudent for the Mayor to now focus his energy on coming up with sustainable funding solutions. He needs to forget about further fast-tracking. 2020 will come soon enough.


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