As statistics were released on Wednesday disclosing that New Zealanders imported 2566 more cars this June than last June, an Auckland Council committee debated long & hard whether to pay a deposit of up to $25 million to import 17 new-style rail vehicles to meet anticipated higher rail patronage 2 years away.
Auckland Transport’s request for the deposit, and an overall shared payment of up to $207 million (cut to $198 million days before the meeting), came weeks after all the council’s long-term plans & budgets were cemented in place. After trenchant criticism from Cllr Desley Simpson for the surprise, Auckland Transport chair Lester Levy & chief executive David Warburton were apologetic, but also firm in their insistence that if the rail units weren’t bought, commuters would be left stranded on the platform.
Others at the council finance & performance committee meeting said it wasn’t really a surprise because increasing stock had been proposed long ago, while the tabling of a 79-page detailed business case was fair indication that the council’s transport arm had been working on the acquisition well before the end of the financial year.
Lee alone with questions about stock
Just one councillor questioned the stock being purchased. Cllr Mike Lee, who was one of the council’s 2 nominees on the Auckland Transport board until new mayor Phil Goff decided councillors should no longer be nominated but could put their names forward for board positions like anybody else, believed Auckland would be buying experimental stock that wasn’t used in any of its comparator cities.
The units Auckland Transport wants to buy are independently powered electric multiple units (IPEMUs), which can run on electricity or battery.
Cllr Lee believed hybrid diesel-electric options should have been put before the committee for a comparison, but Mr Warburton said the diesel units weren’t compatible, and the IPEMUs were more sustainable and had been running in light rail overseas for some time.
Cllr Lee: “In my view they are experimental… We have to make a decision with no alternatives…. In terms of financial decision-making this is very poor decision-making. In terms of the strategic approach, this is ad hoc, done in a rush & deliberately so. This is not about new technology… The cardinal element is politics… Making this decision lets the Minister of Transport off the hook in completing electrification of the Auckland network.”
Council debt limit at risk
The acquisition, if completed on the shared terms proposed, would lift Auckland Council’s debt ratio over its 265% ceiling to about 266.5% in 2019 unless other savings are found.
Mr Warburton said he’d mentioned battery electric multiple units numerous times on visits to the council chamber, but conceded that this proposal wasn’t mentioned in Auckland Transport’s budget documents in May.
He said the option for the council was to delay purchase and insert the proposal in a subsequent long-term plan – “and you won’t have trains until 2021”.
Auckland rail patronage has been on a steep upward curve, rising at 17%/year at the moment. Meanwhile, the road congestion it’s intended to defeat can only worsen, judging by the car import figures. Statistics NZ said national vehicle imports were up $118 million (31%) on a year ago to a record $505 million in June, led by an $86 million rise in new car imports.
Mr Goff said the rail decision would tie in well with infrastructure decisions between the council & government supporting housing growth in South Auckland, particularly beside Stevenson Ltd’s industrial subdivision at Drury.
Mr Goff said the infrastructure measures would bring forward construction of nearly 18,000 houses, and the provision of public transport was essential to move commuters out of their cars.
Deputy mayor Bill Cashmore said the addition of the new rail units was the culmination of 7 years’ work, and a “far more finessed outcome” than when planning for development from Papakura south to Pukekohe started.
The debate closed with 20-1 (Cllr Lee against) support for the purchase. It was dependent on the NZ Transport Agency committing to funding at least 50% of the capital & operational expenditure.
Attribution: Council committee meeting & agenda, images from council live stream.