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Rail stances on the campaign?trail will be followed closely

Opinion Piece

It seems that both mayoral challengers will be taking a pro-rail stance into the election in October — with Tony Robinson likely to make it a centrepiece, and Geoff Milner saying he won’t commit ratepayer funds but will try to persuade central government to reopen the line.

How Mayor Meng Foon responds will be enlightening. He was a leading champion of reopening the line in the first two years after it was closed following major damage in March 2012, but moved on when it became clear there was no support from the Government or KiwiRail.

Mr Foon called a meeting of the two regions’ mayors and the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chairman in September 2014 to try to determine what should happen with the line.

The mayors were all sceptical about the chances of reopening the line for rail, as much as they might have liked that to happen, and were keen to determine the best use for the rail corridor — a significant asset itself, with several potential uses — through a public consultation process.

By then HBRC was heavily involved in an effort to reopen the line for rail, though, earmarking $5.4m for a shorthaul proposal that was seeking another $10m-$12m of private sector funding. Mr Foon supported that effort but declined to commit any council funds from this region.

The proposal has since been narrowed to reopening the Wairoa-Napier section of the line, and an interminably long process of negotiation and “working through matters” continues.

If the mayoral challengers hang their hopes on central government support for reopening the line to Gisborne, they will also need a change of government in 2017 — or perhaps a National-New Zealand First coalition.

If Mr Robinson plans to advocate for community money going into a rail venture, the onus is on him to show that’s a lot less risky than it appears to be based on the evidence so far. If he says Eastland Community Trust should support such a venture, it could be pointed out ECT has shown no appetite for that yet and the mayoral vote is just one of seven.