Auckland Transport’s biggest infrastructure project has hit delays caused by a shortage of funding, and the affected residents of a long-neglected corner of the city, and their MPs are not happy.
Simeon Brown has that rare political skill of getting under people’s skins.
The National MP is speaking at a public meeting in his Pakuranga electorate, organised with neighbouring National MP Chris Luxon, to grill Auckland Transport on a two year deferral of completion of the $1.1 billion Eastern Busway project.
The delay has evidently gone down poorly in east Auckland, which has no rail and its bus services are hampered by suffocating congestion from private car use to the Southern Motorway and central city. Auckland Transport’s chief acknowledges that the city’s southeast is one of the fastest growing areas of the country, “if not Australasia.”
It turns out that Brown – who has lately riled the Mongrel Mob and some on the left with his combative criticisms and proposed iron fist against gangs – is not a one-issue man.
This Eastern Busway delay has him relatively agitated. He tells the 120 residents and business people that the Reeves Rd flyover, a critical part of this billion dollar transport spend, is the first thing he thinks of in the morning, last thing at night, and is in his thoughts probably 100 times a day in between.
While Luxon is questioning but diplomatic towards the Auckland Transport delegation, Brown fires off questions that carry an innuendo of lack of understanding on officialdom’s part.
The first stage of the busway – the removal of the Panmure roundabout, building of bus lanes down by the Panmure Basin, construction of a third bridge across the Tamaki River, clearance of dozens of homes and laying of a spanking new busway to Ti Rakau Drive – is all but done.
Its finish date remains October this year. The delay to the project will come in Stages Two to Four, which would see the busway swing right and southeast all the way to Botany, with two new bus stations. That work could now take until 2027/28 rather than 2025/26, as earlier planned.
Many of those who spoke at the meeting believed this corner of the city had long been neglected in public transport services and spending to relieve congestion. The biggest clap of the night was when Luxon told Auckland Transport that people out east viewed with disbelief the plan to spend $685 million on the pedestrian and cycle path across the Waitematā Harbour. Prioritising that ‘walking and cycling path’ was, the MP said, “a lot of malarkey, to put it politely.” (The harbour crossing is solely funded by central government from a dedicated pool of money, not from AT’s budget.)
Brown’s repeated raising of a possible seven-year wait for the growing Pakuranga-Botany-Howick population to see benefits from the busway, finally got too much for the Auckland Transport chief executive, Shane Ellison.
A crowd that had started off listening attentively to the AT presentation had become more and more indignant at the potential delays. Questions from the floor listed two-hour commutes from Howick to the city, the 46-year wait for the Reeves Rd flyover near the Pakuranga Plaza, and everything from observations of construction workers standing around doing nothing to endless road cones, changed bus routes and the need for heavy rail out east.
Stepping back to the microphone, Ellison first turned to Brown, sitting behind him with Luxon, two local Auckland councillors Sharon Stewart and Paul Young, and members of the local board.
“As I’ve said several times tonight, Simeon, you will not be having to wait out seven years for the benefits… Can we move on from that?”
Until that point, Ellison and his team had soaked up all the community concern – substantive and banal – wearing the patient public face of consultation. But Ellison’s irritation with the MP for over-stating the wait for transport benefits for the locals was palpable.
The chief executive, unusually wearing a high-vis vest to the evening meeting, which he explained was a result of a site visit with AT board members earlier in the day, said the first fruits of the busway would be available to the community from October when Stage One opens. From that point there would be “significant” improvement in speed and frequency of bus services. “There will be a faster trip,” he said, estimated at 40 minutes from Pakuranga to Britomart.
To some at the meeting, the Stage One work amounted to bringing buses over a new bridge and up to a choke point at the Pakuranga Plaza. Brown, for one, said the Stage One $200m spend seemed to be just “bringing the buses a little closer” and not addressing the vast traffic congestion out east, which would now have to wait seven more years.
Ellison said work had already begun on the second stage, with an alliance of companies selected to work-up the best and most efficient plans to get the work done.
He also indicated the two-year delay – which was revealed in June as Auckland councillors found themselves $400m short in 2025-26 for the Regional Land Transport Plan – was not fixed in stone.
“The RLTP is a high-level plan, but things change. Project timing and phasing can change, depending on the progress of other projects and funding availability.”
When the current plan was accepted, the AT board put a condition on it that it would seek “detailed advice on how the delivery of the Pakuranga Botany busway can be brought back to schedule.”
Ellison indicated talks with central government were underway to try to resolve the delays caused by the lack of funding available from Auckland Council. When the project had been included in past plans, an assumption had been made that funding would be a 75-25 share led by the Government but this had turned more into a 50-50 split. If that could be reversed, that would “open up a whole world of possibilities” to put the busway project back on track.
Officials said the Reeves Rd flyover, taking traffic from the Pakuranga Highway towards Waipuna Rd and the Southern Motorway, was critical to the entire rapid transit busway project. It could not be built separately as it had to integrate with busway works.
Brown asked Ellison if it was possible to speed-up resource consent applications for the remaining work, or even to seek approval under the Government’s emergency consents procedure. Ellison said AT and its alliance partners were considering mechanisms they hadn’t used before but not the emergency process.
Luxon pointedly noted people in the area had waited too many years for what amounted to 7.6km of roadway for buses. “JFK sent men to the moon in nine-and-a-half years. Why does it take us just as long to take a busway out here?”
The satisfaction rates among east Aucklanders with Auckland Transport and the Auckland Council were at negative 41 percent, he said. “The worst in Auckland.”
Luxon asked Ellison how productive the work on the project had been, citing fast, round-the-clock work and delivery of infrastructure in places like Toronto, Canada, and in Israel. “How productive are we at doing this stuff? Kiwis might think we are good, but maybe we are just average…”
The AT chief said in theory there should be opportunities to work longer hours on projects but that came with much community sensitivity. “It’s easy to say, if it’s not outside your place.”
Officials promised public consultation on the next stages of the busway before the end of the year. Ellison said: “The Eastern Busway is the largest project on the Auckland Transport books and is one of the most important projects to us. We are looking to push ahead as fast as we possibly can.”
Brown closed the meeting in a more conciliatory mood, thanking AT for appearing, and noting: “The message I take from tonight is it’s very complicated … but where there’s a will there’s a way. Chris and I need to put the case for Auckland. We want to see this project prioritised rather than a cycle bridge.
“These people [AT] are doing their best with the resources they have been given and we wish them Godspeed.”