Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Auckland Cannot Afford Light Rail

 A  long and winding trail

The October report from the Auckland Light Rail team promoting tunneled light rail from the City Centre to Mangere continues a history of reports built on aspiration rather than evidence. Like its predecessors, it is long past its use-by date.

A proposal for underground rapid rail proposed by American consultants failed to get traction in 1965, a classic case of a landmark project that could not be justified.  

That has not changed. Regular rejigging of the dream since 2009 is a case of a solution looking for a problem. In an earlier post I looked for a consistent rationale for light rail.  All I found was:

considerable variation in the policy trail regarding what LRT services might be required, and in what order: long-term cross-regional commuting? linking the inner Isthmus suburbs and the CBD? lifting capacity between the outer Isthmus suburbs and the CBD? or linking other employment centres (Westgate, the airport) with the CBD?

It seems a decision has now been made.  It is not a sound one.

Who will use it?

CBD commuters? Not many. Jobs in the CBD declined by 7% last year. Over half were in the business sectors that accounted for well over 50% of CBD growth in the previous 20 years. Expect further falls: this is the sector in which the largest share of jobs can be done remotely. 

As it is, the CBD accounts for just 14% of Auckland’s jobs. Its where fewer than half the commuters rely on cars. Most arrive from the northern or the eastern suburbs. Very few will be using light rail from the south, and most have bus options.

Inbound travellers? Forget it. Mass tourism has tanked and there is no saying whether or when numbers will recover.  Anyway, it relies on coaches. Independent travellers hire vehicles at the airport, or head directly to their accommodation by taxi or shuttle.  Some outbound travellers may use rail if they live nearby and are not encumbered by cases, while inbound locals will usually head directly home with their meeters and greeters.

Mangere workers? A few, perhaps. The area employs 34,000 people, 80% on and around Auckland Airport. The majority come from across South Auckland, though, and a few from the west. Light rail running north doesn’t meet their needs. 

Non-work trips? There may be demand for Isthmus-based trips for purposes other than commuting. But given the many origins and destinations for personal, social, retail, and education trips, flexible modern buses provide a far more cost-effective option.

So, it is hard to see market support for the optimistic projections underpinning the report (p32).


Does it stack up economically?

Even assuming the projection of boardings is reasonable, a total benefit of $11.6bn for Tunnelled Light Rail is no more than “broadly commensurate with costs” (at $10.3bn).  Costs and benefits are summed over 60 years and discounted at 4%. These are geared to justifying projects with high upfront costs and a long payback period; in other words, high risk, low productivity projects.

It gets worse. It is not clear that the costs of business and household disruption during construction have been factored in. The cost of “enabling infrastructure for ... urban development” (touted as a benefit, pp. 34-35) has not been included.  No provision appears to have been made for the erosion of  bus patronage. And the stated accuracy of the capital cost estimates still lies between -50% and +60%!

Quite simply, the project lacks economic justification. The consequences will be a huge cost to taxpayers and ratepayers: see here for an instructive (if more modest) example in Queensland.

Tail wagging the dog

The latest report is founded on the notion that light rail will work if accompanied by intensive corridor development to sustain Auckland’s projected growth. So, we will be shaping urban land use to support an ill-conceived project.  Unfortunately, the unspecified and uncosted “integrated urban interventions” required to make light rail work will add a lot more to project costs than benefits, compounding the risk of under-specifying and under-costing that have driven the cost blow-out, ongoing disruption, and delays on the totally uneconomic Central Rail Link.

Let’s get real

The report appears to be a self-serving document assembled by a range of agencies (“central and local government working together”) driven by a ”need to develop new living patterns.” There is scant regard for the public purse, or for how residents might like to live, a severe case of groupthink.

Here are some contrary arguments:

·       People have diverse mobility and access needs – fixed route public commuter options only address a small share of them. For many households and life stages automobility remains a high priority.

·       Bus transport in Auckland is working well , despite competition with revitalised heavy passenger rail.  Buses offer flexible operations, fiscally responsible investment, and continuous technical improvement.

·       Road-based transit will adapt with shared travel options in vehicles that are becoming safer, more automated, and less prone to failure (increasing the capacity of the existing road network).

·       With rising carbon prices, the uptake of electric light vehicles and hydrogen fueled heavy vehicles well within the 60-year framework makes any argument around transport emissions redundant. (A fraction of the cost of light rail could go a long way towards accelerating that transition).

·       The decentralisation of services, retailing and employment is a land use trend that promises to reduce trip intensity and length, by meeting more  household needs locally. It should be encouraged.

An elephant in the room: the growth fixation

A fixation on endless growth codified in Auckland’s Unitary Plan may be misleading policymakers. Whether or not a city of around 2.5m by 2050 is what people want or sustainable may no longer be moot.  Even before Covid struck, the driver of the exceptional post-GFC growth mesmerising super city planners – international migration – was turning down, while the net outflow of people to other parts of New Zealand was growing.

The halt to Auckland’s growth in 2021 is not a blip, it is response to the cyclical nature of international migration, a falling rate of natural increase, the decanting of an ageing population to provincial New Zealand, slowing employment growth, and the diminishing attraction of a city of over-priced housing and increasing congestion – which light rail will do little to alleviate. 

If productivity is driven down by ill-conceived mega-projects, expect emigration to prevail over the next decade undermining the growth assumptions on which Auckland’s planning and investment is based. The city needs a Plan B.

Rapid Rail to Mangere – A Wet Feat?

And there’s a second elephant: climate change. With heavy consumption of concrete and steel in tunneling, track laying, and station development, the proposal runs headlong into New Zealand’s commitment to halving net CO2 emissions by 2030. Light rail’s embodied emissions will exceed any gains from shifting people from cars and buses for decades.

Worse - if temperatures rise by even 1.5oC above the Climate Change datum (a prospect based on more realistic assumptions than those used to support light rail) both Auckland Airport and much of the Wynyard Quarter could be beneath the tideline.

Its time halt the expensive business of surveying, consulting, and concocting cases, pack up the train set, and concentrate on developing resilience in the existing transport system. Auckland is at a crossroad.  It may be that it is time to take the path of conserving resources, not squandering them