Infrastructure: Light rail gathers speed

Infrastructure: Light rail gathers speed

The options that are on the table for the city centre to Māngere light rail route.

The Auckland light rail proposal, christened the City Centre to Mangere project, is a lot more than a swish public transport system to ease congestion and quicken people’s commuter journeys.

The multi-billion-dollar project, planned to be operating within 10 years, will speed up urban development as Auckland heads towards a population of 2.4 million by 2050 — an additional 720,000 people from today’s population.

The project will transform communities along the 24km light rail corridor from Wynyard Quarter to the airport, particularly at the Dominion Rd junction on the city centre fringe, at Wesley and neighbouring Mt Roskill, at Onehunga and at the Mangere town centre.

Transit-oriented developments or zero-carbon neighbourhoods of sustainably-designed apartment, office and retail buildings, even urban schools and other services, will pop up along the way. Owning a car won’t be necessary because the locals will be within 500 metres walking distance of the rapid light rail system.

Infrastructure: Light rail gathers speed

Photo / Supplied

At the recent Building Nations 2021 symposium, Minister of Finance and Infrastructure Grant Robertson was asked whether the Auckland light rail project would ever progress.

He replied: “It’s important it does. We need to continue to develop the network in Auckland with different modes of public transport. We want to see work start rapidly.”

The on, off and on again project kicked into life when the Auckland Light Rail Group was formed in April this year with team members seconded from Waka Kotahi (NZ Transport Agency), Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, Kainga Ora — Homes and Communities, and the Ministry of Transport.

With haste, the group organised stakeholder engagement, held community sessions, contacted international advisers, and studied similar projects in overseas cities.

Based on the feedback, the group prepared a business case and recommendations, and delivered to the government in September.

There are three options for the City Centre to Māngere project:

• Light rail via Queen St and Dominion Rd on the surface, total cost $9 billion
• Light metro via Sandringham Rd, mostly tunnelled, costing $16.3b
• Light rail partially tunnelled with 18-20 stations, costing $14.6b.

The group’s preferred option is the latter, a future-proof system of tunnelled light rail from Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill (a distance of 9.5km) and then surfacing at street level to Onehunga, across a new bridge on the Manukau Harbour to Māngere town centre and along Bader Drive to the airport. This option takes into account the probability of easily linking up with a tunnel under the Waitematā Harbour and an extension to the light rail system through North Shore, say in 20 years time. As Auckland grows, there is also the thought of linking up with the Northwestern line.

A late twist was that Auckland University and Auckland Hospital wanted to be part of the light rail system. The university station would be the second busiest on the route, and the hospital wanted to ease its parking problems.

Those stops would only be possible in the tunnelled option, as light rail on the surface would run up Queen St. The tunnel from Wynyard Quarter would connect with the City Rail Link’s Aotea Station and divert to the university and hospital on to Dominion Rd Junction.

The Cabinet will make its decision on the type of light rail system any day now — and the project will be mostly funded by the government, though some form of development contributions could be introduced to the agreement.

Tommy Parker, project director of the Auckland Light Rail Group, said “already we are thinking about it as an urban form project, not a transport project. We think of how Auckland will intensify with a mix of housing, employment and education.

“We want to design quality urban areas and use public transport as a catalyst. We have a 60-year timeframe for the new (light rail) system after it opens.”

Parker said the government was looking for more urban intensification (in the city), and there was a growing groundswell in some communities of pushing back on more townhouses.

“We need to work with them and focus developments in the right areas, not the wrong areas. Light rail on the surface tends to be more spread out with stops every 500 metres, as well as providing slower journey times by stopping at traffic lights and mixing with cars.

“The tunnelled option has fewer stations and provides more focus on high-density nodes. We see this as a big advantage. For instance, we can create a new town centre at Wesley/Mt Roskill and open up new housing areas planned for Onehunga and Māngere.”

The Dominion Rd Junction with office and apartment buildings draped over the light rail line could house 8000 residents and host 7500 workers.

Parker said the urban development needs to be planned and delivered through a collaboration of government, local council, private sector and housing organisations.

“We don’t want property speculation and gentrification where people are priced out of the communities. There needs to be room for affordable housing.

“We are talking to the Property Council about the huge opportunities for developers, investors and contractors to build mixed-use centres.”

In its business case to the government, the Auckland Light Rail Group cites the opportunity of building more than 11,000 houses on Kainga Ora-owned land at Wesley/Mt Roskill. In time, 66,000 houses — many of them apartments — can be built along the City Centre to Mangere route.

Under the tunnelled light rail option, the group has estimated a total of 31.2 million boardings annually by 2051, 35,000 new houses, 16,000 new jobs and a saving of 980,000 carbon tonnes. A quarter of Auckland’s growth over the next 30 years will take place along this corridor.

The travel time from the city centre to the airport is 43 minutes and ensures ready access to 515,900 jobs. The modern, sleek trams will be the same as the ones operating on the Gold Coast.

Parker said the airport provides the second biggest employment area after the city centre — and there’s more land there to be developed. It would require more workers to come in by public transport, and for people in Mangere and Onehunga the travel time would be 10-15 minutes on light rail.

“If you provide a reliable service, you get a bigger uptake in jobs,” he said. “The project has suffered from the idea that it is a trip for holidaymakers heading to the airport. But only 4 per cent of people will be using the route end-to-end.

“Another thought is creating a major interchange at the airport for people coming in from Botany on the rapid bus and joining the light rail system. If you get the interchange right, you can have a lot of people moving about and using the service instead of driving their cars to Manukau, Onehunga and the city centre,” Parker said.

The trams would run every three to five minutes in the tunnel from the city centre to Mt Roskill and then every six to eight minutes on the surface section to the airport. Every second tram would turn around at Mt Roskill and head back to the city centre because of demand in the more densely-populated area.

The tunnel section would be built 20-30 metres below the surface.

“At that depth we can get below the basalt and go through the soft rock. Tunnelling in Auckland is now a lot smarter and less risky,” said Parker. “We have built up knowledge of the geology and progress rates through building the Waterview Tunnel, City Rail Link and central interceptor wastewater pipeline.

We have more skilled professionals in Auckland and it will be nice to keep them here and use their expertise.”

Following the Cabinet decision, the Auckland Light Rail Group will begin the New Year preparing the detailed business case and design, including refining the route and costs, and finalising the delivery organisation and funding. Further community feedback will be sought, and consenting and property issues is planned to be completed by late 2023 or early 2024 when construction will start.

A modern light rail system, up to the best standards seen overseas, could be up and running by 2030 — just nine years away.

Auckland Light Rail

The Auckland Light Rail Group is a collaboration between Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, Auckland Transport, Auckland Council, the Ministry of Transport and Kāinga Ora.

Infrastructure: Light rail gathers speed

Leigh Auton. Photo / Supplied

The group has been developing the business case for an Auckland light rail service that is attractive, reliable, frequent, safe and equitable. The services have to be integrated with the current and future public transport network, access to employment, education and other opportunities, embed sustainable practice and reduce Auckland’s carbon footprint.

A major driver is to unlock the potential for urban development supporting a quality compact urban form.

The group’s board is chaired by Leigh Auton. Other members include Waka Kotahi CEO Nicole Rosie, Auckland Transport CEO Shane Ellison, Auckland Council CEO Jim Stabback, Ministry of Transport CEO Peter Mersi, Margi Watson who is the representative from Albert/Eden local board and Chris Darby who chairs Auckland Council’s planning committee.

Auckland Light Rail Group is a sponsor of the Herald’s Infrastructure report.

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