Simon Wilson: Are Aucklands light rail bosses trying to build public support or destroy it?

OPINION:

Does the minister know? On March 31 this year, Transport Minister Michael Wood proudly announced that light rail for Auckland is back on track. Now, his establishment unit is undermining the very process he was so keen on for getting it done.

Information that could and should be in the public domain, so we can debate it, is being kept hidden.

“We need to rebuild a ‘social licence’,” Wood said. He repeated the point at a meeting for stakeholders and the public in Three Kings on May 7.

He called light rail “the biggest city-shaping piece of infrastructure in Auckland since the harbour bridge”. But he knew it lacked public support, so he promised a bold new consultation process.

It would be “open and transparent”. There would a shopfront: a place for people to call in and see what’s proposed. There would be public meetings. The thinking behind their various options would be made plain.

“There is no model for this process that I’m aware of in New Zealand,” he said at the time. “Projects tend to be engineer-led, but for this one we’re going to find the best engagement person in New Zealand and they will run the consultation process.”

No such person has been employed.

Meanwhile, the people in charge seem confused about how to build a “social licence”.The unit’s CEO, Tommy Parker, told the Herald yesterday that they “don’t know what people want”.

In fact, they surely know there is strong support for better public transport in Auckland. That’s come through clearly in every survey for years, including the 20,000 pieces of feedback received by council on its 10-year “Recovery Budget” and the 6000 submissions received by Auckland Transport for its own 10-year plan.

There is probably not much confusion about the benefits of rail, either. Obviously, it can carry far more people than buses and private cars. It can service commuters, shoppers, schools, universities and technical institutes. It offers a valuable option for many recreational travellers: people going to the game, to a show, out for a night on the town, down to enjoy the waterfront. And it won’t clog up the streets the way a thousand buses do, either.

When it comes to light rail from downtown Auckland to the industrial precinct of Māngere and the airport, the lack of a social licence has little to do with how useful it would be.

It’s about four things: the cost, the disruption it will cause during construction, route options and the question of mode: which type of rail is best.

The mode options are street-level light rail, like the old trams, and “light metro”, which would be elevated and/or underground in built-up areas. This question will be included in the consultation and that’s great. And if you think heavy rail is a better option, you should be able to tell them that, too.

But they do not intend to tell us what might happen in the central city. Could the line run up Queen St, or perhaps across Wellesley St, or underground?

What might these alternatives cost?

And – this is so critical – how can businesses, shoppers and workers on Queen St be reassured their lives will not be horrendously disrupted? How will Queen St not become another Albert St?

Answering questions like these is the central purpose of consultation. These are the things we don’t already know, but should. Because you can be sure the establishment unit does know all about them.

Under the Labour-led coalition Government, Waka Kotahi and The NZ Super Fund presented two competing light rail proposals. Both included a great deal of work on route options, preferred modes and costs. The Government spent $35 million assessing them.

But we’ve never been allowed to know the contents of either.

At the end of September, the establishment unit will present an indicative business case to the ministers. It will include advice on all this. There are 70 staffers and contractors working on it now.

But still we aren’t allowed to know where the downtown route might go, what it might cost or how they will minimise disruption. Why not?

This is not how you build a “social licence”. It’s how you risk destroying one. It’s an appalling lack of transparency.

The establishment unit will conduct small liaison meetings with community groups and representatives of youth and the disabled, among others. A pop-up vehicle will visit markets and other public events. The new website has a feedback survey.

That’s all good. But Wood isn’t getting his shopfront and no public meetings have been scheduled.

Boot up the bum time. Where’s that public engagement wonderperson? Why isn’t someone with those skills running this process?

This isn’t about just light rail. We need our civic authorities to get really good at public communication and consultation, because Auckland is now confronting some very big challenges: carbon emissions, congestion, housing affordability and the need to build a more compact, more connected city and more equitable city.

Light rail is integral to all of that and this is a very poor start.

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