Light rail was promoted as a “game changer” – but govt must change gear (and the minister, maybe) to quicken the pace

We wonder if there is any surprise among readers that the  Ardern  government   has  made a hash  of  delivering    another  of its   flagship   policies, Auckland’s light  rail  project.

Ardern  labelled the project  to build  light  rail from  Auckland city to  the airport  a  “game changer”.  And  she  promised  to extend it to  Mt Roskill within four years  of taking office.

This  week   deputy PM  Winston Peters   told  Parliament “exploratory” work has  still to be  completed.

As  Point of Order sees it, those who wonder why the project  is close to  foundering should ask who is in  charge of the  project.  They will find it is  Phil Twyford,  whose  performance  with KiwiBuild  was so disappointing – and became so politically embarrassing – that the PM this year gave ministerial responsibility to someone else.

Twyford retained   Transport, though  Ardern’s  judgement was questionable.

Simply,   the  government’s  excuse  in blaming   failures  on   “nine years  of neglect”  by  the   previous   government is  coming back to haunt ministers  like Twyford.  For if  ministers  in the previous  government  didn’t  do their job,  how  come  the  current  crop  so neglected  the preparation and implementation of a better policy that  they are  failing  even more spectacularly to deliver  what they promised?

Twyford, of course, shuffles off  responsibility for  the  botch-up to the  NZ  Transport  Agency  and the  new  chairman of  the  agency, Sir Brian Roche,  concedes  it  did  “drop  the  ball” —but  where does   this leave  the  principle of  ministerial responsibility?

Opposition  Leader Simon Bridges opened   question time in Parliament  on  Wednesday  by asking the PM when construction  would begin on  light  rail  in Auckland. This  was the  answer he  got  from the  deputy PM  (standing  in for  Ardern)::

Like every person that understands both transport and business, when we have the forward costings organised, all the engineering reports, and all the alternative views are put on the table, then we will make a commercial decision”. 

That doesn’t  sound   like any  time soon.

Here’s  another  exchange  from  Parliament on Wednesday:

Chris  Bishop  ( Opposition—Hutt  South)  : Is it correct that the government is assessing only two bids for the Auckland light rail project—one from the NZTA, and one from NZ Infra—and, if so, is he confident that the Crown will receive value for money from this procurement process?

Twyford: After years of under-investment in our largest city’s transport system and the gridlock that that caused, our government is determined to build the transport networks that a modern international city needs. It’s not correct to characterise the process as containing only two bids. Cabinet has asked the Ministry of Transport (MOT) to run a competitive process between two approaches. One is the proposal from NZ Infra which would see it finance, build, own, and operate the light rail lines, and the other approach, being developed by NZTA.

According to  reports, Treasury has warned the government that getting it wrong could see the cost of the $6bn project balloon like Edinburgh’s light rail, which took six years to build and cost twice its initial estimate.

In August the government said work wouldn’t even start in 2020, as it still had to weigh up who would build and run the scheme, NZTA, its own transport agency – or the NZ Super Fund, which made a surprise, unsolicited offer to build and run the project in April last year.

A   report  by Stuff  contended Twyford was warned by officials the NZ Super Fund bid wasn’t up to scratch. In fact, the initial bid was just six power-point slides.

Twyford now says Cabinet has asked the Ministry of Transport to run a competitive process between  two approaches. One is the proposal from NZ Infra, which would see it finance, build, own, and operate the light rail lines; the other approach being developed by NZTA would include the more conventional public-private partnership (PPP), or design and build models.

Early next year, Cabinet will decide which of these two approaches it prefers.

Clearly   it will be a  slow  march to  end   Auckland’s  gridlock.

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