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.