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Q&A: An electrifying new twist to the consultation game
Brian Rudman
Wednesday November 15, 2006

In recent weeks the Government has turned consulting Aucklanders into something of a game show. This week's question: Do you want a waterfront stadium? Last week's: How do you want local government in Auckland reformed? The week before: Do you want tolling on the Southwestern Motorway?

Replies on the back of a sealed envelope by yesterday. Winners to be announced by Christmas. No correspondence will be entered into.

In the latest contest, quizmaster Trevor Mallard has upped the pressure by threatening to give the big prize to Christchurch if Auckland fails to join in the jollity.

Entering into the spirit of this pre-Christmas light-headedness, could I turn the tables for a moment and aska question of Mr Mallard.

When is the Government going to come to the party and commit itself to find the $322 million shortfall needed to create a modern electrified rail system in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup which will benefit Auckland for 50 years afterwards?

Also, can he reassure Aucklanders that if we continue to spurn the Government's $500 million waterfront stadium, Wellington will not spit the dummy and refuse to give the green light for the infrastructure we crave?

How odd priorities sometimes are. The stadium on the waterfront was a vision that suddenly flooded Mr Mallard's grey matter a brief three months ago as he lay on his office floor, stunned by news that the Eden Park authorities had suddenly doubled the cost of their stadium renovation plans to $320 million.

Since then, he and a secret team of bureaucrats have cobbled together, with the aid of hopeful architects and builders, their master plan. Last Friday it was dropped on Auckland for the first time, and we were told we had two weeks to say yes - or no.

No design or accurate costing will be available for months, and Finance Minister Michael Cullen warned yesterday that the $500 million price tag could rise. Despite that, we have just two weeks to commit ourselves or we're a bunch of sissies.

Compare that with rail electrification. At every step, Dr Cullen or his Treasury henchmen have demanded more reports and more analysis. Every stone that can be turned has to be turned and inspected and measured. And the results peer-reviewed. Then, just in case, a new committee is formed to begin the process all over again.

Last week the final consultation round of the Auckland Transport Strategic Alignment Project probe into electrification ended. Every stakeholder and territorial authority has now been briefed and support, I'm told, is unanimous. Auckland, in other words, has consulted and agreed totally that we want electrification.

So how about it, Wellington? We've jumped through all the hoops. Now it's up to the Government to put its money where its mouth is and move from approval in principle some time in the never never to, "Yes, go and buy the trains tomorrow".

The sums are not huge. All that's needed from the Government to make it possible is an extra $32.2 million a year for the next 10 years. Given the $500 million - mostly of other people's money - they're happy to see spent on a waterfront stadium in the national interest, the electric rail shortfall sounds almost like petty cash.

Over the next 10 years, Auckland ratepayers are committed to spending $507 million on rolling stock maintenance and upgrades and station maintenance and the like. The Crown is committed to between $450 million and $600 million on track upgrades etc. On top of that is $572 million needed to electrify the system, including the cost of 40, two-car electric trains. The ARC has agreed to pay $250 million as its share. That leaves $322 million for the Government. That is your question, Dr Cullen.

Your Government is putting great store on creating a world-class image for the World Cup. And, it is true, European visitors will not be very impressed if they're to ride in geriatric old carriages with clapped-out diesel locomotives that die on the tracks far from whichever stadium wins out.

Given that most of the so-called Government contribution to the new stadium seems to be the proceeds of a new bed tax, underwriting the electric rail project seems a small price to pay, not just to impress the rugby fans but to convince Aucklanders that we're not just a game show here for the amusement of outlanders south of the Bombay Hills.