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Light Rail: The State Is Back

Written By: - Date published: 9:46 am, January 31st, 2022 - 30 comments
Categories: auckland supercity, grant robertson, michael wood, public transport, supercity, transport, uncategorized - Tags:

The light rail route and mode decision this week shows something new.

It’s in the nature of the state itself.

New Zealand’s heroic health professionals have been consistently delivering world-beating pandemic responses despite three decades of foolish restructuring, low workforce training, and corrosive funding. The disaggregated state has been camouflaged by COVID. The front line workers and the entire public service delivered us all the magic of time. Time enough for the state itself to reaggregate.

The state at war with itself, the state disaggregated, is what tore the light rail project apart and killed the career of Phil Twyford.

In transport that heroic capacity seen in health has shall we say not been yet apparent.

Until Friday.

The light rail decision shows a confidence in an ability to deliver outcomes beyond the legislated “safe, efficient and effective” in several areas:

The first is Kainga Ora. See its scale at work here.

Its’ massive land holdings through Wesley and Sandringham has helped sway the route away from Dominion Road and toward Sandringham Road. Kainga Ora’s massive brownfield developments in Mt Roskill and Mt Albert show what the state can do beyond the boundaries of any one Departments’ funding. These so-called Wider Economic Benefits are usually peripheral to a specific transport investment decision, but not this time.

Ministers Wood and Robertson have made their decision about much more than just transport.

Quite under-publicised, the multiple projects Kainga Ora now has underway constitute the largest urban regeneration programme in New Zealand history.

Many of these – Mt Albert,

Mt Roskill,

and Mangere – will once light rail is complete have public transport as their dominant transport mode.

Since they also connect to the airport, Onehunga and the CBD, they enable those living close to the route to greatly decrease their reliance on the car full stop. Thousands and thousands and thousands of houses.

The state response to the Christchurch Earthquake through CERA, SCIRT, and specific coordinated areas such as the Christchurch Justice Precinct have provided strong templates for horizontal cross-agency cooperative delivery.

But the modern key precedent to them all this century is Hobsonville, for it is there that NZTA’s predecessor and Housing New Zealand cooperated to bring other relevant agencies such as NZ Police, Ministry of Education, local councils, social housing providers including iwi developers, all into one great master planned multi-decade rollout.  The scale of Hobsonville’s development is something one would only see in coastal China or Texas.

Here our military exercised one form of the state, and from the sale of that land came whole new state-directed suburbs.

The second is the business community itself. Explicitly, the Ministers chose to tunnel from downtown to deep into the suburbs rather than face the media and political noise that they face in City Rail Link. Billions and billions and billions spent avoiding political risk. That’s quite something.

And between the two – Kainga Ora and the business community – lies real estate capitalism. The illustrations of its apotheosis are bountiful.

There has never been a project like  it in New Zealand and I expect at $15 billion (so far) there never will be. You can see some of the years of thinking that has gone into it here.

At the briefing on Friday Minister Robertson said that the “lion’s share” of the project will come from the government and that other options including “value uplift – a charge on business and developments that benefit from the project – and some kind of targeted rate.

Those bold or fortuitous to have bought property anywhere near this alignment are in for a valuation windfall that will make the last six years look tame. Tens of thousands more are being enabled to do so.

What is remarkable is now two decades after Hobsonville was wrested from NZDF to turn into housing, the state has learned to strengthen and cooperate on a scale that controls vast regions of Auckland, both as land and as networks.

Light rail, just like MoH, shows the state working at market-altering scale.

Granted this great unlearning of the 1980s structural adjustment has been accelerating since the Christchurch rebuild.

But light rail says it clearest.

The state is back.

30 comments on “Light Rail: The State Is Back ”

  1. Ad 1

    Apologies editors: First para, second sentence should read:

    "The disaggregated state has been camouflaged by COVID. The front line workers and the entire public service delivered us all the magic of time."

  2. Robert Guyton 2


  3. Patricia Bremner 3

    What an uplifting post. Thank you Ad. We have a gem in Megan Wood. The intention of integrated planning is wonderful and breathtaking in scale. We need the third term to allow this to be cemented in. This is the visual of the planning and once the tunneling begins we can all be proud of this.

  4. McFlock 4

    Interesting. I really like the coordination between policy sectors that this post illustrates.

  5. Stephen D 5

    One wonders how much of the failure to deliver over the last 30/40 years has been down to the philosophy of the civil service.

    • Nordy 5.1

      The 'philosophy' of the public service is whatever the philosophy of the govt of the day is.

      The 'reforms of the late 1980s and 90s made sure of that that. To not understand that is to completely miss the point of the neo-liberal reforms.

      • Ad 5.1.1

        Actually it's the reverse of what you claim:

        All NZ's major infrastructure projects – including housing super-suburbs – are now of a scale that they require multiple governments to implement.

        The state precisely through the 1980s restructures have evolved a set of institutions and contract forms that endure beyond any change of government. Has some downsides, but it locks in delivery at a scale we've not done since Think Big.

        • Nordy

          Wishful thinking, but not so. The institutions you refer to are not a creation of the reforms, rather they exist despite the reforms.

          • Ad

            If the reforms hadn't occurred, in the major developments you would not have had commercial structures to enable:

            (in transport)

            – City Rail Link alliance

            – Transmission Gully PPP

            – Northern Gateway alliance

            – Waikato Expressway alliances

            (in housing):

            – Hobsonville

            – Cannon's Creek

            – Pt England, Mt Roskill, Oranga, Mangere, Mt Albert

            – SCIRT including Canterbury rebuilds and Kaikoura rebuilds

            (in health):

            – Te Whanau Waipereira and all the other Maori health NGOs, which have proven useful in a 1-in-100 event

            (in finance)

            – Kiwibank

            – Kiwisaver

            – NZSuperfund

            – All the major projects under Provincial Growth Fund

            All with their own Boards and structures and funding, all delivering on policy outcomes, none but a few of the PGF ones stopped by either Labour or National.

            • Stuart Munro

              I cannot speak to all your claims, but the Canterbury rebuild is not a poster child for anything good.

              Delay, obstruction, frank corruption, and shoddy workmansip of fraudulent proportions has been the rule.

              The state need not carry the can for this – it was Brownlee's fief after all. But neither can it celebrate it. How Brownlee remains unimprisoned is a mystery to me.

              • Ad

                Agree and the state taking claimants all the way to the Court of Appeal is damning. The counterfactual is, however:

                What would have happened to Christchurch and northern Canterbury without these entities not being set up?

              • mike

                Quite right. Much of what has happened is in spite of Brownlee.

                Christchurch has three extant heavy railway lines. From the south, the west, and the north. Since the earthquakes refugees have made outlying towns like Rolleston in the south, West Melton out west, and Rangiora in the north grow hugely.

                Not one train exists to bring workers from these sites into town. It’s all cars.

                Post earthquakes Christchurch railway station was pulled down and a miserable suburban station at Addington is supposed to suffice. With the destruction in old Christchurch between Addington and the CBD there was so much empty land a new set of underground tracks could have relatively easily been laid arriving at the same central point that the new bus station now occupies.

                But no! Brownlee hates railways and that particular vision was as far away from him as a greasy mince pie was close.

                No city grows (especially in a climate-change era) without a proper rail system. With a bit of foresight, and based on Wellington’s example, a electrified heavy rail commuter system was a real possibility in Christchurch. Now it’s not.

                Good on the progressive government for grabbing the nettle of light rail to Auckland airport (and surrounding suburbs) – something Christchurch’s sad example shows would never be possible under tories.

                • ghostwhowalksnz

                  CBDs of NZ cities were once manufacturing centres in their own right, with a smaller office core.

                  Auckland that stretched to Newmarket ( breweries ,railway and PO workshops timber yards) and Freemans Bay area and Stanley St the other side.

                  The wharves were large labour users as well as the central railway goods areas.

                  That doesnt exist anymore as the light and medium industry and warehousing is in the vastly expanded suburbs.

                  Transport planning uses software and census data to simulate where people live and work – study etc. The morning peak is then modelled.

                  There just isnt the numbers to make rail; services worthwhile in Christchurch at least ( the old city station is used for other purposes)

                  Its nice to compare with Netherlands rail services but they have 18 mill people in an area of the Canterbury region which has 650,000

              • Descendant Of Smith

                The two standouts for me were not putting an immediate rent cap and freeze on allowing profiteering by landlords which exacerbated the speed of escalating rents around the rest of the country as they realised they could get away with charging lots and the lack of investment in New Zealanders in trades training which should have been kicked off straight away.

                I would have also been happy with a mini-MOW to supplement the private sector.

                There was so much opportunity missed with so much of that money moving overseas instead of circulating in our economy.

                edit: And I also agree with the missed rail opportunity.

  6. Gosman 6

    It will be dropped at the first opportunity by any incoming non-Green and/or Labour government.

    • McFlock 6.1

      Nice for parties to have these policy differences. Gives voters a reason to choose between them.

    • Ad 6.2

      National rigorously opposed the City Rail Link for years.

      They came around.

    • ghostwhowalksnz 6.3

      Remember the Auckland Holiday highway , contract was let before election in 2017 and the first earthworks began that summer as the new government was finding its way around beehive.

      Hasnt completed yet and yet that was one of nationals RONs promised in 2009-10

      Not sure the airport end makes sense, as seen even with Sydneys rail network the airport terminal stations have very low boardings of pax . Down there like Granville station. Usage figures are hidden in the through traffic as its one of the main lines but they want to be in Central.

      Likely many passengers are just getting from one terminal to other as they are on opposite sides of runway

    • Gypsy 6.4

      I sincerely hope so. The light rail proposal is destined to be a high priced white elephant.

    • Muttonbird 6.5

      It' be finished by the time that happens.

      Do National and ACT supporters really believe the "train set" to the airport is not necessary because people won't be flying much anymore, and everyone will have a self-driving car in the future?

  7. ghostwhowalksnz 7

    Dont think Hobsonville was 'state directed' at all.

    Yes the state provided the infrastructure development and the Key government sold off great chunks of serviced land to private developers who reaped the windfall of rising land prices when they built the development of their choice.

    Its actually a direct transfer of public wealth into private hands, was repeated with the state buying up the CBD ring land – 'Frames' in Christchurch through compulsory purchase and then sold in crony capitalism style that Key, English and Joyce loved

    • Ad 7.1

      Cabinet directed that it be used as housing.

      HLC was the state vehicle set up to direct it, back in the early 2000s.

      And yes much of it was turned into private title and sold off as housing.

      • ghostwhowalksnz 7.1.1

        Zoning . Councils do this all the time.

        Hardly a situation of the state deciding much at all.

        • Ad

          The ARC MUL shift for Hobsonville was not what caused Hobsonville today. Certainly it was a necessary part back in 2005-6, but "zoning" doesn't generate or execute the masterplanned development. Only the state did that.

  8. Gypsy 8

    "The state at war with itself, the state disaggregated, is what tore the light rail project apart and killed the career of Phil Twyford."

    Not only that. Twyford was just one of a number of hapless ministers (think Curran, Meka Whaitiri, Poto Williams, Kelvin Davis, Iain lees-Galloway) Jacinda Ardern has had to deal with.

  9. Christopher Randal 9

    Readers may be interested in this post from Matt Lowry at Greater Auckland


    Is his opprobrium because his group weren't listened to?

    I hear that PTUA is against it as well

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