By Claire Edmondson, Infrastructure New Zealand Chief Executive

Transformational infrastructure projects, like Auckland Light Rail and Let’s Get Wellington Moving, are incredibly important and will create benefits for generations to come. However, it’s imperative that we learn the lessons from similar projects to ease the burden of disruption to communities and businesses along the way.

The Office of the Auditor-General’s (OAG) recent report into the City Rail Link (CRL) found governance was generally effective, but also made a number of recommendations. These included the need for sustained reporting in improvements to CRL sponsors to promote accountability, improve governance and to gain the confidence of stakeholders.

Importantly, key learnings must be taken from construction to avoid repeats of the levels of disruption caused to businesses and communities. We need projects to succeed while they are being built, just as much as when they are completed and operational.

We have a track record in New Zealand of doing projects ‘on the cheap’ and delivering them with an economic hit to the communities affected by construction. Communities should not have to bear the disruption of transport projects run in ways that severely impact on town centres, businesses and commuters the way CRL has.

Residents in Auckland suburb Māngere, for example, already face significant adversity – cut off from good public transport options and with difficult commutes to and from the city centre. It will be critical to ensure they are not further adversely impacted by light rail construction.

The CRL scope included the requirement to “cause the least practicable disruption to the public and businesses during construction”. However, business owners, particularly in the Albert Street area, have publicly shared their experiences of trying to keep operations ranging from shops to early childhood centres afloat in what has been described as, like a “war zone” with increased crime and delinquency and as “a dark, dismal, dusty and graffiti-disfigured construction zone, threaded by narrow alleyways and hoardings”.

Despite a government relief fund, a number of businesses have folded, with owners reporting that banks will no longer extend overdrafts as Albert Street is currently considered “unsustainable”.

Red flags have been raised throughout the CRL project. In January 2020, then Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye called a crisis briefing with Auckland Transport, calling for a review of the consent planning for government and private developments as 63 city centre streets faced disruption by public projects – including CRL and Auckland’s Downtown Programme.

Ms Kaye described the situation as a “perfect storm” and called for better coordination of Auckland Transport, CRL and private development works to deliver a more efficient way of dealing with congestion and impacts of works.

The city centre projects have been poorly coordinated with one another. We can and must do better moving forward.

Alongside the OAG recommendations, New Zealand should also be looking to overseas best practice and learning from mistakes in terms of supporting and managing affected communities through major construction programmes.

According to a McKinsey report, there are currently light rail projects worth over (US) $1.4 trillion at various planning and execution phases globally. The Global Light Rail Projects Report and Database 2020-2035 is tracking 280 new and upcoming light rail projects in 55 countries.

Sydney’s CBD and South East Light Rail was completed in 2021, significantly over time and budget. The state government is now facing a class action lawsuit by more than 60 businesses for mismanagement of its construction.

Auckland city centre business association Heart of the City has urged the government and Auckland Council to heed the Sydney experience and focus strongly on cost and management for the light rail project, including how business disruption will be managed and funded.

Heart of the City CEO, Viv Beck, noted that business owners are continuing to suffer major distress due to the CRL construction and that the government and council “cannot say hand on heart that they have done everything possible to settle those issues before announcing another major project”.

The good news is that New Zealand is now in a very good position to take lessons from what has gone well and what hasn’t – from CRL, from Sydney and from many other international projects, and to plan a different approach. An approach that closely considers and works with the communities in which future similar projects will be constructed, and for whom they’re ultimately designed to benefit.