In her first visit to Tauranga since becoming Labour Party leader, Jacinda Ardern has already had more of an impact than her predecessor – drawing bigger crowds and a better response.
Around two or three hundred people gathered at the Edgewater Fan downtown on the waterfront to hear Jacinda announce plans to invest in both local roads and a rail network connecting the ‘Golden Triangle' of Auckland, Hamilton, and Tauranga.
She says the plan is drawn from the business case put forward by Greater Auckland and Greater Tauranga last week, and which was enthusiastically endorsed by the Green Party.
Jacinda says her government will invest an initial $20 million in commuter rail connecting the three cities, and continue to invest if demand warrants it.
“We believe 350,000 trips a year would justify the project.”
Greater Tauranga spokesperson Heidi Hughes says their group, which advocates for alternative transport in Tauranga, only launched a few days ago.
“We've been big fans of Greater Auckland for a long time, and many of us have been advocates of multi-modal transport for a while. We really want to be a portal for a bigger conversation around transport here in Tauranga.”
They support the proposed rail network connecting the island's three main centres north of Wellington, and Heidi says although they're independent from Greater Auckland, they have a similar vision.
“We'd like to see a fully-integrated, multi-modal transport network in Tauranga, so there are more choices for people. We're really strong on cycling and public transport. We want to make the most of our existing infrastructure. With some clever work, this existing rail could support both freight and a commuter network.
“We also want to make things better for pedestrians, so when people aren't using their cars they have great ways of getting around.”
She's sceptical of National's recently announced ‘Roads of National Significance' project, which will cost the country $10.5 billion.
“If you build roads, cars will come, and they'll come into our cities and towns. There's got to be more options, or you'll end up with this cartopia of chaos in our cities. If you sorted out ways to get people from A to B with other modes of transport, you're landing people in towns on foot and they won't be taking up carparks or clogging up the roads.”
However, Tauranga MP and Minister of Transport Simon Bridges calls Labour's rail plans ‘unrealistic'.
“The Auckland-Hamilton-Tauranga rail line is our busiest freight route and simply doesn't have the capacity to also be a commuter rail line,” says Simon.
"The only way you could use it for both would be to double track large sections of the line, and Labour doesn't have any plan to invest for that.
“Labour would kick economy-fuelling freight off this important line and replace it with empty commuter carriages. The other and possibly bigger problem is that the journey by train between Auckland and Tauranga takes more than four-and-a-half hours by rail where a car or a bus takes around two-and-a-half hours and a plane takes around 40 minutes.”
He says the population of the Midlands in England is over 10 million people, versus the 730,000 in Waikato/Bay of Plenty, yet the cost of rapid rail there is in the billions of pounds.
“Labour should really do their homework before coming out with ideas cooked up by public transport lobby groups.”