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City Rail Link blowout widens Auckland Council’s budget black hole
Another billion added to the CRL’s bottom line is deepening Auckland mayor Wayne Brown’s financial woes.
Mōrena and welcome to The Bulletin for Friday, March 17, by Catherine McGregor. Presented in partnership with Z Energy.
In today’s edition: Stuart Nash had beeen in trouble as police minister before this week’s call; Bernard Hickey looks at whether cost-cutting is the answer to Auckland Council’s budget gap; auditor general probes dispute between We Are Indigo and Callaghan Innovation. But first, a billion-dollar cost overrun gives mayor Wayne Brown another transport-related headache.
The price tag on the City Rail Link just went up by $1 billion. (Image: AT/supplied)
One year longer, one billion more expensive
If there’s one thing Auckland Council doesn’t need right now, it’s another big bill. Unfortunately that’s exactly what it got on Wednesday when the City Rail Link (CRL) announced a $1 billion funding blowout. The projected completion date is also being pushed out a year, to November 2025. Construction costs for the CRL are split 50/50 between council and central government; Mayor Wayne Brown said he believes the council deserved a better deal. “I’ll be going to the government and saying, ‘Listen here mate, we didn’t have 50% of the decision making’,” he told RNZ’s Morning Report. “The people that made the decision were from Wellington and inexperienced in my view.” The CRL cost increase is primarily a Covid after-effect, CEO Sean Sweeney said, noting that “in Auckland we endured two level four lockdowns, a further 280 days of restricted working conditions and we lost 3.2 million hours through illness among staff.” CRL’s estimated cost now stands at $5.493 billion.
Light rail is another transport headache
The city’s other big transport project, Auckland light rail, got a brief mention in prime minister Chris Hipkins’ reprioritisation announcement on Monday: the project will now be delivered in stages, he said. On the transport blog Greater Auckland, Matt Lawrie said the real issue is the government’s insistence on starting with “an isthmus-spanning tunnel that will take a decade or more, and billions of dollars, to deliver”. Light rail should start with a “surface solution now, with the ability to add a tunnel in the future,” he argued, adding: “Had this government not been distracted by tunnel fantasies, the first stage of Auckland Light Rail would be up and running by now.” I must admit I hadn’t fully realised how much of the track will run underground – although, in my defence, most of the project’s concept imagery does show trains running along city streets. In fact, under current plans, the track will run underground all the way to Mt Roskill, where trains will emerge to run overland along SH20 to the airport.
Public transport woes a national issue
March is the busiest month for public transport, and the stresses are worse than usual this year. Auckland Transport has been criticised for asking passengers to avoid peak hours – otherwise known as the times of day when people have to travel to and from work and school. From Monday, five Eastern Line train stations will be closed until January 2024, while bus services continue to struggle from severe driver shortages. AT will increase public transport fares by about 6.5% from April 2, it announced this week. The fare rise, the first since 2021, will add “no more than 20 cents per journey while half price fares remain in place”, AT interim chief executive Mark Lambert said.
Bus services are struggling in other cities too. Wellington saw 165 cancellations on a single day earlier this month and the region is short about 125 bus drivers. In February, The Press reported that 15,000 bus trips had been cancelled throughout greater Christchurch in the previous four months, an average of 127 a day.
A budget at breaking point
The CRL blowout will put further pressure on Auckland Council as it tries to fill the forecast $295 million hole in its budget. In a frank and wide-ranging interview with Tim Murphy of Newsroom, Maurice Williamson – the councillor leading the charge on cost-cutting – said there would likely need to be a substantial cut in council staff, especially among the higher-paid ranks, followed by a “steel lid” on employee numbers. Asked on Morning Report how many roles would be cut, Wayne Brown was blunt: “Every person should be concerned.”
The process to rebrand our oldest university
In collaboration with mana whenua, the University of Otago, New Zealand’s oldest university is refreshing its visual identification in a bold and exciting way.
A new logo and ingoa Māori have been in the works for almost four years, taking into account the local dialect, environmental features of the Ōtākou Harbour and the metaphorical beauty of te reo Māori naming.
Stuart Nash had been in trouble as police minister before
The solicitor general had considered prosecuting cabinet minister Stuart Nash for contempt over public comments he made following an arrest in the killing of a police officer in 2020, Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper has revealed. Nash resigned as police minister on Wednesday over a call he made to the police commissioner. In the earlier instance, Nash told Mike Hosking on air that the police had arrested the man responsible for constable Matthew Hunt’s shooting and he hoped he’d get a long prison sentence. “The case against Eli Epiha hadn’t been completed and the solicitor general took a dim view of Nash’s outburst, saying while they’d decided not to prosecute him they referred the matter to the attorney general to rebuke him, which he did,” Newstalk ZB reports.
Auditor general investigating We Are Indigo
The dispute between We Are Indigo and Callaghan Innovation is being probed by the auditor general, André Chumko of Stuff reports. As reported by The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive in November, We Are Indigo and its subsidiary Manaaki have been the subject of a number of allegations including bullying, privacy breaches and unethical behaviour. Despite this, Creative NZ awarded a $5.3 million contract to a We Are Indigo-owned business in December 2022. A Creative NZ spokesperson told Stuff that depending on the result of the investigation, it may review its partnership with the company.
A message from Anna Rawhiti-Connell, editor of The Bulletin and head of audience at The Spinoff
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Why Auckland should just borrow
Auckland mayor Wayne Brown has embarked on a money saving scheme to plug a $295 million "fiscal black hole" in the council's finances, but is that really what’s needed? A Better Budget for Auckland's India Logan-Riley talks with Bernard Hickey in the latest episode of When the Facts Change about the flaws in Brown's logic and suggests an alternative to the mayor's belt tightening that doesn't involve slashing social services.
Click and collect
Business is down as much as 90% for some Coromandel companies, who say Cyclone Gabrielle road closures have had a devastating effect.
Seven Auckland railway stations are getting new te reo names, including downtown’s Britomart, which will be renamed Waitematā Railway Station.
The government is laying the groundwork for a hydro scheme at Lake Onslow in Central Otago, despite estimating it would cost $16 billion to build.
The national dry ice shortage has hit air travel, with Air New Zealand confirming ice cream is off the menu as a result.
Goodman Fielder is looking to cut 90 staff at its Palmerston North and Oamaru factories and will cease producing its “tradie staples” Irvines and MacKenzie pies from June.
Green space per-person has fallen by at least 30% in Auckland since 1980, and more than 20% in Hamilton, the environment commissioner says. Nearly all the loss is from private residential land.
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Joshua McKenzie-Brown asks: if you have a disability, do you need to disclose it to your employer? Tara Ward ranks New Zealand's best working robots. Teacher Haley Vuleta writes about what she does every day and why she joined yesterday's strikes. Charlotte Muru-Lanning reports on why students are devastated that Waikato University cancelled its marae graduation. And Graham Edgeler explains why Stuart Nash’s call to the commissioner meant he had to go.
Veteran Doug Bracewell will replace Neil Wagner for the second test against Sri Lanka today, playing in his first test as a Black Cap since 2016.
Aotearoa’s first national Māori men's cricket tournament will take place this Easter with five regional teams competing. A women’s tournament will take place in October.
Sonny Bill Williams has been criticised for retweeting misogynist influencer Andrew Tate, who is currently in Romanian prison on sex trafficking charges.
It’s Friday, so…
The first instalment of Hera Lindsay Bird’s new advice column was published on The Spinoff yesterday, and it’s an absolute delight. A reader with a “mildly famous” boyfriend wants to know how to stop feeling so crushingly inferior beside him. Bird, a world-renowned poet who also happens to be one of New Zealand’s funniest writers, supplies a perfect answer. Here’s how it starts:
“First of all, I have good news for you, which is there is no such thing as being mildly famous. There is being famous (Elizabeth Taylor) and then there’s being invited to spin the wheel at the local Rotary meat raffle.”