GUEST BLOG: Mike Lee – AT – the unaccountable empire at the heart of the Super City


The following article is taken from my speech notes that I gave in introducing the recent mayoral candidates debate on transport organised by PTUA, CBT & NZ Transport 2050. Present were candidates Wayne Brown, Viv Beck Craig Lord. Unfortunately Efeso Collins declined to appear.

Transport and the way it is being managed is one of the most important issues concerning Aucklanders – it’s also the most expensive. A recent Weekend Herald investigation piece by Bernard Orsman ‘Super Rich in the Super City’ reported 20 corporates (the majority overseas owned) were paid $10 billion by Auckland Council between 2010 & 2020. Auckland Council itself divvied out $1bn, Watercare $2bn, but most of it, a remarkable $7bn was funnelled through Auckland Transport.  The numbers would be a lot higher today.

It is interesting how Auckland Transport which was established by the National led Act-Māori Party coalition government as a key component of the ‘Super City’ amalgamation in 2010, unpopular as it is, ‘AT’ as it likes to be called, seems to be an accepted part of life in Auckland. So extensive are its powers and influence it’s impossible to discuss anything about Auckland transport without mentioning ‘Auckland Transport’.

But the existence of such a large, powerful, undemocratic bureaucracy is unprecedented in local and regional government New Zealand. No such equivalent existed before or anywhere else in the country. Remarkable, given the vast amounts rates money it commandeers, is the fact that AT doesn’t actually do anything practical by way of transport services, except interestingly parking enforcement. All the rest, literally billions of dollars worth of what were once core local government services, from roadworks to bus services, is outsourced to private companies. Just on $2b for foreign owned bus companies. So lucrative has this become that large profit-taking foreign-owned corporates now control all public transport services in Auckland – buses, ferries and rail. One can now see pretty clearly why it was that big business interests, including (especially?) Australian interests, in the lead-up to the ‘Super City’, (as one APN executive told me at a function in 2011) became so deeply interested in how we organise our local government in Auckland. And given the sheer scale of the money at stake it’s really no surprise that unlike anywhere else in New Zealand the Super City model was simply imposed on Aucklanders.

So now it seems we have the worst of both worlds fully privatised public transport and an enormous largely unaccountable, very expensive public sector bureaucracy. Despite it being so unpopular with the public, no government, nor any media opinion leader will touch AT because AT is one of the most outstanding success stories of the neo-liberal project.

For many years the received wisdom was that Auckland, was not spending enough on transport. However that notion is long out of date. In fact the people of Auckland, especially over the last 12 years through rates and taxes and indeed their fares, have and are paying more than their share – billions of dollars worth.

The real question is: are they getting value for money from this investment?  The answer has to be a resounding NO! I am going to focus here on rail, rail public transport

When I became the chairman of the ARC in 2004, rail public transport in Auckland was emerging from a period of strategic muddle. 

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During my time in the ARC from 2004 to 2010, the agreed strategic direction eventually settled on with the Clarke government was to extract as much value as possible from our existing though chronically under-used rail network, some 200 km of tracks. This was achieved by double tracking the Western Line, launching an as-new fleet of rolling stock, renbuilding some 46 stations, recommissioning the Onehunga Branch Line  and campaigning successfully to persuade the Labour government and then after 2008, the National government to electrify Auckland’s rail network.

The next agreed step was to complete the missing link between the western and eastern components of Auckland’s rail network – the City Rail Link. CRL. Interestingly this was designed virtually along exactly the same route as was first proposed in 1950. 

The CRL became a very popular campaign pledge in 2010 by the first Super City Mayor Len Brown.

The 3.4 km tunnel was originally priced at $2.4b in 2011 (already high by international standards). In 2016 this increased to $3.4b (at the same time deducting the cost of the originally planned Grafton Station) then in 2019 it blew out to $4.4b. It now looks like blowing out again – by at least another billion.  But the scale of the latest blow-out is being deliberately concealed until after the election. Albany councillor John Watson aptly called this the ‘mother of all hospital passes’ from outgoing mayor Goff.  

The CRL project is managed by an entity called CRL Ltd, largely staffed by ex Auckland Transport personnel, owned 51% by the government and 49% by the council. Oversight of such a critical project has been minimal (last time I looked most of the virtually invisible board members hailed from outside of Auckland (Wanaka, Blenheim and Wellington). The massive failure by CRL Ltd to hold the foreign-owned construction companies to the tendered price also applies to the completion date – originally set for 2021 when construction began in June 2016, it is now years behind schedule – now promised for some time 2025.

Despite the massive incompetence in the building it, on the face of it at least the CRL  project maintains the original strategic coherence  i.e. maximising the use of our rail network which in the beginning lent it so much public support.

But no.  This is no longer the case. Instead of leveraging this massive investment, the government and the council are intent on pushing ahead with a completely different transport mode – light rail to the airport (or should I say Mangere). Originally announced at $6b in 2018 by the former Minister of Transport, the hapless Phil Twyford, which included for a time a line to Kumeu (parallel to the existing rail line) the light rail project is now priced at $14.6b though Treasury warns that could increase to $29b. 

So not only gross incompetence at the operational level, but also at the strategic level – in other words the Government.

Already over the last four years it was revealed in parliament that $42.5m has been spent on this light rail project on consultants – a look at the list suggests just about every consultancy house one could think of has been at the trough for its share. And yet not one centimetre of track is even close to being laid.

For a small country like ours, this is strategic chaos and financially ruinous.

To be fair, I’m not getting too upset by this, as I pointed out some years ago in a series of articles published in the NZ Herald and The Daily Blog, the light rail to the airport project (‘KiwiBuild on wobbly wheels’) will surely capsize under the weight of its shear irrationality.

But getting back to existing reality, there is remarkable contradiction at play here – a strange paradox. While enormous amounts of money is going into rail, it has become quite obvious through a a recent string of decisions, that AT does not actually believe in rail at all and is quietly stymieing rail from assuming the key role, originally planned for it. (A role which also includes reductions in transport driven carbon emissions which also should include incentivising containers off our congested roads and motorways and onto rail.)

My suspicion is bolstered by a long list of decisions pushed through by the ARC bureaucracy going back at least 10 years. 

  • The cancellation (without consultation) of original plans to extend passenger rail to rapidly growing Kumeu-Huapai in 2013 and the stubborn refusal to revisit that decision
  • The eviction from Britomart of the Auckland to Wellington service, the Northern explorer, in 2015, and so damaging its patronage
  • The refusal to complete the work to make the Parnell Station fully operable (connecting the platforms with an underpass) 
  • Overturning  longstanding plans to extend heavy rail to Auckland Airport – post CRL 
  • the recently announced permanent retrenchment of popular Onehunga services without consultation, on the dishonest pretext of temporary CRL related work at Britomart
  •  the premature withdrawal of Pukekohe services (though ostensibly until the line is electrified in two years? time)
  • intended permanent removal of platforms at Britomart which means less trains will be able to use it.

We have in Auckland Council a looming massive financial crisis and the mismanagement of rail is a key part of it.

In Auckland it seems we have the worst of both worlds. Through a series of deliberate policy decisions our public transport services, bus, ferry and train are operated as profitable concerns by foreign-owned companies, at the same time we are burdened by a huge, costly, all-powerful, largely unaccountable bureaucracy called Auckland Transport  and its offshoot CRL Ltd.

There is no longer any strategic coherence in our critical transport policies – the only consistent strategy I can see is the resolute adherence to the neo-liberal policies which led to the creation of the Super City in the first place. This has and will continue to enable the transfer of billions of dollars from the public of Auckland to foreign owned corporates.


Mike Lee

Former chairman of the Auckland Regional Council & current candidate.



  1. That’s why we need a mayor that wants to cut costs. Not increase them. Collins wouldn’t be right for AKL, as nice a guy as he is.

  2. Excellent article. But it seems the lefties and righties are unable to stop the massive rot and wasting of money in Auckland from AT and Labeen government, in spite of the mostly unused petrol tax, soon toon to be another tax on congestion/user charges. They already have spent a fortune with little to show for it, but constantly dream up more ways to make Auckland’s cost of living, higher and disruption longer.

    NZ is becoming a basket case for transport.

    Also ports, water, they just can’t finish one disaster before starting another.

    • And of course the engineered supercity failure by ACT and National party and the COO, which Labeen cautiously cheered them on with.

      In short all the political parties have contributed to the disaster that is, Supercity and AT and COO’s and our lack of public transport, workable maintained roads and value for money in transport.

      Note the attack adds on transport that were taped by Jamie-Lee.

      Making public transport free is not a bad idea, AT probably spend more on enforcement and other areas with few paying users anyway, so it will work out the same or better. And at least will get more people into public transport and off the roads in cars and deliver something for transport users.

  3. Well put Mike Lee.

    It is too much for this campaign, likely way too much for many Aucklanders fevered brains, and factor in the low political participation–but the corporatist legislation underpinning the Supercity needs to be addressed next time. Undemocratic CCOs were meant to achieve exactly what Mike describes.

  4. If I’m not mistaken those idiotic rules of councils not being permitted to own/operate PT services have been repealed recently with the Public Transport Operating Model abandonment? I could be wrong.

    In any case you are 100% right, AT are rudderless with rail with the examples you cite are absolutely correct. Similarly in road transport they appear hijacked by hobby groups lobbying them for road space, closures, etc, that is now stuffing up getting around Auckland, full stop! AT by their very existence have made traversing Auckland increasingly more difficult than before they came to be.

    And although not Auckland Council driven, the insane single line light rail dream of Michael Wood has to be reviewed! That money could so easily be better spent on existing PT infrastructure.

    Anyway, best of luck with your campaign to be re-elected. You’re sorely missed!

    • It’s not too late to pull the plug on the damn expensive social engineering thingy RailLink project. Change it into underground roads or housing.

  5. That’s what the supercity is all about Mike, created by Rodney to stack the CCO boards with fellow travellers & like minded people, take a cut themselves & funnel the money off to their foreign friends, the ratepayers are none the wiser!
    AT, Panuku Development, Ateed all have their heads buried in the trough & it can only get better (for them) as the chaos carries on.

  6. Met a woman a couple of years ago who was temping at Auckland Transport. She was staggered at how little work anyone seemed to do there. The Herald published a list of people earning over 200k per year at Auckland Council. Quite a few of them seemed to be working at Auckland Transport. In 2017 194 people in the Auckland Council were earning over 200k. 2322 were earning over 100k. Compared with Brisbane Council ( similar sized population base to Auckland where they employ 35% less people) a mere 149 people were earning over 100k. Yes, it’s a gravy train with not alot to show for it. Pathetic.

  7. When Mike led the Auckland Regional Council, the rough head count for all local government staff in the Auckland region, including the ARC itself was around 4,500 people. That was thought at the time to be a bit excessive. Then during the amalgamation process (why was there no referendum on that?) around 30% of the roles were found to be duplicates that could eliminated as part of the amalgamation process. Fair enough. I worked near the ARC offices at the time and watched a lot of people leave with their final pay cheques. Then Brown was elected, recruited them all back, and since then Auckland Council has grown into a bloated monster who complement was, when I last checked, over 11,000 employees AND they’ve contracted out most of the actual work!

    This mirrors Labour’s performance in central government where they’ve taken on an additional 17,000 staff, paid consultants a billion dollars in the past year, AND the outcome is still worse than it was previously.

    This is why we need to elect people who have proven track records of managing organizations, not ex-teachers, union reps and wonks from academia.

    • Your considerations Andrew sound as from experience. What broad area of work are you in? Better than teachers, academics and so on who have learned a lot of theory and as we all have heard from such pseople, think they know everything. Should we look beyond economists also and hedge fund financiers etc who are also dreamers and schemers. Engineers? They find it hard to exclude those with the belief if you can’t make it, then fake it. Doctors are generally flat out trying to keep their patients vertical, but there are a few fakirs there too.

  8. The light rail thing will never happen. They will spend another $50M thinking about it, the government will change eventually and it will be dropped as stupid, as it is. Yeah it sounds good, but if you have just got off a 12 hour flight from China, Japan or Singapore, the last thing you want to do is get on a train to britomart only to then get a taxi with your luggage to your hotel.

  9. I’ve decided to vote Wayne Brown purely on the basis that he’s got the will and ability to shake the shit out of all the little and not so little fiefdoms that populate the bureaucracy in Auckland.

    End of the day it will be business as usual under any other mayor.

  10. This is as exciting as watching Jack Bauer on the tv series 24. I have to read this in episodes otherwise I can’t take it all in. We who were slightly cynical about the Super Shitty and ACT and National having anything good in mind, and Labour too; we now are fully cynical. And the facts seem to bear us out.

    But I dare some rightie to find the pot of gold here. Perhaps it could be turned into a computer game, one where you blunder about and find the stores of goodies, and add them to your portfolio. Aucklanders might be numerous now, and interested enough to buy this game, and then it could be altered to be sold to other cities overseas where I am sure the same monetary process has been engineered. Of course the Simpsons and Springfield monorail swing to mind, but I talk too often in cliches. But perhaps in this day and age, at the end of the day, a new cliche might enliven the decaying atmosphere.

  11. In less than 9 minutes. Mike explains the rot within AT and its corporate welfare contracting out of services, from Aucklanders pockets, of tens of billions of dollars of public services.

    All AT akshully does is collect parking ticket infringement fees after pinging you! Thats their only ‘public’ service!!

    Mike should be running for Mayor!

    • This is, AT is. A classic example of corporate Co Governance.

      The enabling of a network of global financial investors and fund managers as well as vulture capitalist to enter the NZ ‘local’ economy unchecked. The returns to them and their investors are huge and unabated.

      Why wouldn’t you buy shares in the private investment banks of America?

      Who of AT and CRL executives and senior staff have bought shares in these investment company’s?
      A bit of inside knowledge helps. Ay?

  12. Just a side addition which throws a little glimmer of light on the strange state of politics, the young adults in politics, their use of tweets and how their minds are really not matured enough to be given an early vote, and perhaps should not be considered for anything till they are 30. This is what serious-minded people in Auckland, like Mike Lee, have to deal with. But the young guy does have nice teeth, I say that for him. Perhaps he should keep them hidden, and just breathe through his nose.

    Quote about a twitter comment from the young perpetrator:
    “This was a strange thing that popped into my head … it wasn’t really thought through.”

  13. I am not normally a betting person, but can I just put money on it now that the chosen light rail option will be a different guage from the NZ (and Queensland) standard – thereby limiting the options for future development.
    Pretty sure the Corduroy Kid (Simon Wilson): the Lycra Lad (Dvid Slack) and the whole team of lobbyists that have an agenda will hold sway.
    Mayor Robbie has been rolling in his grave for the past 3 or 4 decades as the ticket clippers make their fortunes

  14. Every other day I read on this blog, how only the government can build houses cheaply. Reading this fiasco, I question if big governments are just a gravy train, where there is no accountability and the brainwashed taxpayers keep picking the tab of its mismanagement, and private sector wins as they earn hundreds of millions more.

    Transmission gully costed $1,25m (original budget $850m) for 27 km.
    CRL $4.5b(and growing) for 3.5km
    Where is the outrage??

    • Further down for outrage Benny, just press the button where it says Oh!. Keep reading and remember to try and understand all the permutations. Your reading and word skills go up the more you use them. And then your own outrage may be so well expressed that you can break through the Wall separating the fancygents from the customers and announce you have a better plan at a third of the cost to be finished within two years about. Or else you can at least bore a hole through to watch the mental gymnastics of the planners off-site where no stone is turned at great cost.

    • Dont forget the $221k spent on the 2 hour opening gig! A ex green party MP’s Acting & Drama Club from Pt Chev in Auckland scored that gig.

  15. Unaccountable Empire.
    Love that and from polling that’s what Auckland is going to continue to get an unaccountable empire.
    People I think treat elections like a vote for class captain.

  16. Here’s why Mike Lee should be Mayor!

    Outing AT’s mega-corporate welfare splurge of Auckland ratepayer’s cash.

    All A.T. does is parking ticket infringements They contract out every other service for billions of dollars from AAucklanders’pockets!

    Watch and listen to Mike tell you how this scam works.

  17. Geoff Upson has no love for AT

    and as for the light rail project – meh – it will still be faster and cheaper to catch the existing train to Puhinui and the bus from there. the best and worst thing is the fact it will go down Dominion Road or is it now Sandringham – meh – moved out of Auckland now anyway. Nice place to visit – lived there for far too long – thanks Covid for waking employers up to remote working.

    • “Light rail” …just a newspeak for tram. 19th century trandport for mid-21st.

      Those “artist’s impressions” always inflating width of roads so trams, cars, busses, even pedestrians fit comfortably are actually very honest. Honest proof that they do not care about facts.

  18. “We have in Auckland Council a looming massive financial crisis and the mismanagement of rail is a key part of it.”

    And Blackrock Inc is waiting in the ‘wings’ to capitalise on this ratepayer funded corporate welfare fund.

    • And what about ‘Green fleet?” You may ask who, what are they?
      Theyre a carbon trading company in Australia. Ak Council entered into a financial contract with them in 2016 behind closed doors.
      The ‘own’ all the trees, vegetation, grass ect …on, in every park and reserve berm that the council owns. They have a encumbrance ‘right’ on it all!

      So much for a Climate Change Emergency clean green council who trades by selling its sequestration rights for $50m+ per year!!


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