Government puts light rail ‘on hold’

Work has started on the southern-most part of the City Rail Link project at Mt Eden earlier this year, marked by Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, CRL CEO Sean Sweeney and Transport Minister Phil Twyford.

The Government’s flagship infrastructure project has been put “on hold” while it fights the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are some doubts it will ever get going again.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford said decisions on Auckland’s light rail project “are on hold while the Government’s full focus is on fighting Covid-19”.

During the election campaign, Labour had promised to have the first stage of the Auckland light rail scheme built by 2021.

But after a long and protracted process, the Government has yet to decide who will build the scheme, let alone begin construction.

The Government is currently at the point of deciding who it wants to build the scheme. The two bidders are NZTA, the Government’s infrastructure builder and NZ Infra, a group made up of the NZ Super Fund and CDPQ Infra, a Canadian pension fund.

After an analysis of the two bids by the Ministry of Transport, which finished in February, the decision had been put before ministers.

Twyford’s office could not clarify when a decision will be made on who will build the project, given New Zealand is expected to be fighting the economic effects of Covid-19 for some time.

He said the Government remained committed to light rail.

While Labour and the Greens are enthusiastic supporters of light rail, coalition partners NZ First are skeptics.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford said light rail decisions were “on hold” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Associate Transport Minister and NZ First MP Shane Jones has previously said party members were “doubting Thomases” when it came to the “light rail kaupapa”.

Jones has also pointed out the commitment to begin work on the rail line was included in the confidence and supply agreement between Labour and the Greens, not the coalition agreement between NZ First and Labour.

The two agreements both include a clause that says that the agreements are to be consistent with one another.

National transport spokesman Chris Bishop said the scheme was now very unlikely to progress before the election.

He said it would be a “millstone around the neck” of the Government during the forthcoming campaign.

The decision could raise questions about the purdah period ahead of the 2020 election.

This is a convention whereby large decisions, especially those involving significant sums of money, are not made in the period leading up to an election, given that there could soon be a change of Government.

This is affirmed in several sections of the Cabinet manual.

Observing the purdah rules could mean that a decision on light rail would need to be made imminently.