Former quake recovery boss Gerry Brownlee rejects light rail for Christchurch
The former minister of Christchurch's earthquake recovery says the economics of introducing light rail to the city "do not stack up".
Gerry Brownlee, the National party candidate and incumbent MP in Ilam, was the lone dissenting voice at an electorate debate before a 400-strong audience at the University of Canterbury on Tuesday. Standing alongside his Labour and Green party opponents and independent candidate Raf Manji, he questioned the financials of such an idea.
"When you look at light rail, it all sounds good, but it's hugely capital intensive," he said.
"Right now, New Zealand taxpayers subsidise KiwiRail every year to the tune of $250 million plus, just to keep it going. So there's a big number of questions that have to be answered about why rail is so good."
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Rail for Christchurch has been mooted since 2011, when a connection between the CBD and the airport was put forward in the Christchurch City Council's draft central city plan. That idea was never adopted, but the concept of rail as part of the city's rebuild persisted. Commuter rail is part of the Labour and New Zealand First policies for Christchurch this election and the Greens backed similar plans in 2014. On Tuesday, Manji said it was a missed opportunity.
"We've got no rail centre in the city. It's crazy . . . We have an incredible regional rail link in terms of the corridors. Is it too late to do that? I don't know, but it's something we need to look at."
Brownlee's focus on cost concerns was lop-sided, he said, sparking one of the few altercations in an otherwise placid debate.
"If you want to get as much freight off the roads as possible," Manji said, "There's no point saying it just costs 'x', what are we saving in terms of environmental benefits?"
"That's one of those wonderful values statements that . . ." Brownlee began.
"It's an economic statement, which I know a lot about and you don't," Manji said.
"They've got things they say about people who need to talk about themselves," Brownlee replied, "The point simply is the economics of that do not stack up."
All the candidates – Brownlee, Manji, Labour's Anthony Rimell and the Greens' David Lee – bemoaned the fragmentation of transport oversight in Christchurch, particularly the absence of a centralised agency to manage the issue.
"I was, and remain, in favour of there being a single transport authority for Christchurch," Brownlee said, "But it's been incredibly difficult working with the local authorities."
Brownlee, the former Earthquake Recovery Minister, was a late addition to the debate line-up, having declined an invitation some time ago because of a prior commitment. His sporadic appearances at such events have drawn criticism in the past.
He skipped two electorate debates last month [his campaign team cited his heavy schedule as a government minister, particularly with his new foreign affairs portfolio] but appeared on a radio debate with Manji and Rimell and stood in for party colleague Nicky Wagner at a Christchurch Central electorate debate at the Ara Institute of Canterbury last month.
That was a boisterous affair, most notable for Brownlee's verbal jousts with a Labour-friendly crowd. He was more subdued on Tuesday, though rose to the challenge when Rimell slated National's nine years in power, doubling down on his assertion at the Ara debate that the Earthquake Commission's (EQC) response to the Canterbury earthquakes had been a "roaring success".
"If you don't have a focus on growing the economy you don't have opportunity. And the one thing you need leaving university in this country is opportunity," Brownlee said.
"I find it a bit rich from someone who says EQC has done an outstanding job that he can say those things," Rimell said.
"Because I'm right," Brownlee said.
"EQC is dealing with the biggest insurance disaster in the world since [California's Northridge earthquake in 1994]. It is a huge thing and frankly anyone who does a little bit of study, perhaps a doctoral study in the future, will find it's been a very, very good response."
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