Rain cannot dampen Auckland Light Rail's 'phenomenal' pace

17 April 2023
Despite the soggy summer, the pace of work to get Auckland Light Rail (ALR) built has been phenomenal in the five short months or so since Auckland Light Rail Ltd (ALR Ltd) was established as a Crown Entity and Arup and Aurecon joined us in a planning and design alliance.

Our programme of below ground investigations to test soil and water conditions along our indicative route is well underway. Experts in urban development, public transport, the environment and infrastructure funding are adding value to our expanded board. We’re continuing to gather valuable feedback from Aucklanders regarding our route and station locations, and a tsunami of ideas from our team of Kiwi and international designers and planners on what a completed ALR could look like is rapidly taking shape.

The Prime Minister’s comments in Parliament last month that ALR is a once-in-a-generation investment in the city underscores the vigorous and committed work my team continues to make.

For a project of ALR’s scale and complexity the progress is extraordinary. We will soon confirm the route and station locations, lodge notices of requirement to protect the route and get the consenting process underway.

Our tight deadlines are strategic. We want to be ready for construction in time to take advantage of an opportunity to get skilled contractors from Australia as projects over there like ours start to tail off in the next couple of years.

We are building a world class light rail system - one that will add more strength and resilience to Auckland’s wider transport network, reduce congestion on streets and make the city environmentally cleaner, and be a catalyst for sustainable, well planned population growth and affordable housing.

Two disruptive events over summer – the catastrophic rainfall and a Southwestern Motorway crash that blocked access to the airport - are timely reminders of the critical importance of a resilient city, one that can provide access to vital services, homes and jobs in even the most testing of times. A transport network that provides a choice of reliable, efficient transport across the city is key to that.

While it’s a challenge to build anything that’s absolutely bullet proof against the dynamic forces of Mother Nature, the weather is certainly lifting the focus at Auckland Light Rail around what a resilient, fit for purpose infrastructure like ours should look like.

Hobsonville in west Auckland may be a long way from the path of the first stage of the project, but it’s a community we’re giving a lot of attention to. It has valuable lessons to share with us about delivering infrastructure that is both resilient and protective of the people it serves.

Hobsonville’s been developed by Kāinga Ora and its development partners on an old air force base and built with resilience and natured-based infrastructure solutions in mind. Traditional underground storm water pipes were reinforced with the use of above ground measures – green spaces, wetlands and swales – to slow or capture excessive rainfall.

The suburbs out west copped some of Auckland’s heaviest downpours but anecdotal evidence suggests the impact of flooding in Hobsonville was relatively low.

Seeing how the lessons developed there can be applied by ALR have never been more important.

During the pandemic, Auckland’s population dropped 0.5 per cent after 20 years of growth that averaged 1.8 per cent. As things return to normal, we expect the number of people calling Auckland their home to grow again.

Over the next 30 years, 22 per cent of Auckland’s population growth and 37 per cent of job growth will take place along our 24-kilometre-long route.

Our indicative route includes both suburbs marked for housing re-development like Wesley and Māngere and those more established across the central isthmus. Both present different challenges: with the newer ones we can almost start from scratch – like Hobsonville - and with those that are older we are thinking how our work fits successfully with existing infrastructure to make it more resilient.

This is not work we can do on our own. As we nail down final plans and designs, Kāinga Ora, Auckland Council and mana whenua with all their skills and knowledge are critical partners to help us better manage the environment.

The framework we settle on will be a layered one. Funding will be a big part of it, for sure, but so, too, will urban planning and the environment – adopting strategies for a cleaner and stronger Auckland that encourages carbon reduction and provides protection against climate change – and the best stages to get the project delivered in line with Government objectives. Our ambitions are broad – solutions that will not only best practice for the project, but can be applied right across Auckland and to wider New Zealand as well.

It isn’t just the weather, however, that can put Auckland’s transport network at risk. There’s the human factor, too.

That crash on the Southwestern Motorway impacted on travellers, and on those many people who work at the airport and its neighbouring commercial precinct.

The airport and the central business district are Auckland’s two biggest employment hubs located at either end of ALR. A light rail connection that is reliable, frequent and safe is essential for the many thousands who will depend on it.

Be clear! We are not building a shuttle to the airport for travellers. We are developing a brand new travel choice to make the city’s transport network more robust. It will give Aucklanders another option to cars, buses, heavy rail, ferries and walking and cycling for their travel around the city.

We’re not designing anything like Auckland’s old tram lines nor the modern-day trams you find across the Tasman in central Sydney and Melbourne.

Trams share the same road as others – drivers, cyclists and walkers. The added protection Auckland Light Rail will provide comes from an important difference: as much as possible, it will be separated from those other factors. That makes it less vulnerable to congestion and more resilient to other risk factors, including the weather and crashes.

For a start, we’re planning to tunnel about half of light rail – the section from the CBD, the universities down to Wesley and the Southwestern Motorway. That will help reduce disruption and risk but, importantly, it also gives us the capacity in the future to expand a light rail system to the city’s north shore and north west.

ALR is quite different from other projects. What we’re delivering is benefits led. Alongside a brand new transport choice there will be a huge improvements in how we use our land in existing and new communities – safer spaces for people, less traffic on their roads and more commercial and residential development. With other transport infrastructure projects those benefits usually come after construction is done.

Make no mistake! Light rail’s value to Auckland will be huge and critical – one that will add to the city’s prosperity and growth. Aucklanders will benefit from added protection – more clout to allow the city’s wider transport network for an international city like ours to continue to function should there be a motorway crash in one part of town or flooding and slips in another.

This story was published in the NZ Herald's Project Auckland supplement, 11 April 2023.