City Rail Link is key to Auckland's future

JOHN POLKINGHORNE, PETER NUNNS AND STUART DONOVAN
Last updated 16:38 13/08/2014

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OPINION: At TransportBlog, we want Auckland to be a more connected, vibrant, and prosperous city.

So it came as a surprise when Jason Krupp of the New Zealand Initiative authored an opinion piece criticising our analysis of the need for the City Rail Link (CRL).

Mr Krupp suggests that Auckland should delay or perhaps even cancel the CRL. We disagree: the CRL is critical infrastructure which has already been subjected to considerable scrutiny, especially when compared to most other major transport projects in New Zealand's history.

Construction on the CRL needs to get underway in 2016 lest Auckland's growth is stifled.

Auckland's transport future will be rather different to its past.

Auckland is competing for human and monetary capital with cities that benefit from efficient public transport networks.

The four largest cities across the ditch - Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, and Brisbane - all built CRL equivalents decades ago.

Because those cities unlocked more capacity from their rail networks, they can move more passengers free of congestion.

Rail networks in Perth and Brisbane - cities less dense and not much larger than Auckland - each carry more than 50 million passengers a year.

We should take a lead from what's worked in Australian cities, which benefit from better mobility and easier access to jobs and services.

Mr Krupp incorrectly suggests that there is a debate over whether the CRL should happen at all. Fortunately, all major parties now agree that the CRL is necessary - but they disagree on the start date. Auckland Council and the major opposition parties have publicly committed to a 2016 start for construction.

A National-led government, on the other hand, would fund the CRL no earlier than 2020 unless two targets are achieved first.

The Government proposes to delay the CRL unless rail patronage reaches 20 million trips a year by 2018 and employment in Auckland's city centre grows by 25 per cent by 2017.

We are concerned about the arbitrary nature of these targets. The employment target, for example, ignores the role the city centre plays in meeting growth in residents, tertiary students, and visitors.

It's also unclear why targets have been set for the CRL but not for other major transport projects.

The Government's criteria also seem to avoid more obvious "value-for-money" targets, such as the benefit-cost ratio.

Nonetheless, we believe that Auckland is capable of achieving the Government's patronage target, although it's a stretch.

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Since the development of Britomart, Auckland's rail patronage has grown at double-digit rates, rising from around 2 million annual trips to almost 12 million in a little over a decade.

There's no reason we can't meet or exceed that performance over the next decade given the ongoing introduction of electric trains; a better, more frequent bus network; and integrated ticketing.

Auckland's revitalisation of public transport has been one of its major success stories over the last decade.

Investments in new infrastructure and services have paid off: Britomart, the Northern Busway, the Onehunga Line, and the new Panmure station have all outstripped initial projections. Britomart surpassed its forecasts more than a decade early.

The CRL is a sensible response to proven demand for rail services.

Without completing the "missing link" between Britomart and the Western Line, we will soon hit a capacity constraint - full trains, too many buses in the city centre, increasingly congested roads and reduced economic development.

On the other hand, the Government's employment target for the CRL is unrealistic to the point of being nonsensical. Simply put, a 25 per cent increase in city centre employment by 2017 is physically impossible.

A recent independent report by PwC found that the central city won't have enough office space to house these extra employees, given current low office vacancy rates and the time lag in developing new offices.

Moreover, much of the development required to get close to this target is contingent on the CRL. The redevelopment of the Downtown Mall, for example, won't proceed without it.

Which begs the question: is this target reasonable, or is it simply a delaying tactic?

The Government's targets and much of the media coverage on the CRL give the impression that the project will only benefit the central city. That's patently not the case.

Auckland has 120 kilometres of rail lines that move people to and from Manukau, Newmarket, New Lynn, Middlemore, and many other stations as well as to Britomart.

Building the CRL will enable Auckland Transport to increase the speed and frequency of services across the entire network, and possibly expand rail to the North Shore and the Airport.

Carrying on without the CRL would be like building the motorway network without the Central Motorway Junction. It just wouldn't make sense.

As firm believers in evidence-based policy, we welcome the degree of scrutiny on the CRL. The evidence compiled by Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, and central government is not only comprehensive, but also unprecedented when compared with other transport projects such as the expensive Roads of National Significance programme.

But now, the facts are in: it's time to build the City Rail Link.

Right of reply to Jason Krupp of the NZ Institute, by John Polkinghorne (RCG associate director and TransportBlog administrator), Peter Nunns (MRCagney senior economist and TransportBlog contributing author), and Stuart Donovan (MRCagney principal economist and TransportBlog contributing author).

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this editorial are personal ones, and do not necessarily represent the views of the authors' employers or clients.

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