Sunday, December 3, 2023

Narrowing chances of road to deep north 

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At this rate, Northland will be lucky to see a new motorway built this century, Allan Barber says.
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After many rumours and many delays the Puhoi-to-Warkworth section of the Ara Tuhono motorway finally opened early morning a few Mondays ago, as did the Matakana link road, which has been patiently awaiting completion of the motorway for several months. 

Apart from the joy of a faster journey to reach Warkworth from the south, the other major cause for celebration is the immediate avoidance of the notorious Hill Street intersection with its six streams of traffic meeting at the traffic lights on the old State Highway 1. Driving into Warkworth from Matakana is now an absolute breeze and weekend traffic queues should be a thing of the past.    

I was fortunate enough to be taken on a tour of the new motorway a few weeks ago, which gave me the chance to appreciate the design and engineering and learn about the project’s use of waste material to cut and fill as the construction progressed. 

The largest cut was a 70m rock face, from which 1.2 million cubic metres were removed – two thirds reused as fill. The erosion control programme was designed in-house by the project team; it won an international award and praise from Auckland Council for the sediment control practices during the bulk earthworks. 

The innovative environmental plan involved different sediment control systems for runoff during construction, managed by chemically treated sediment control ponds, and runoff from the completed motorway, which is passed through planted wetland ponds before being discharged offsite. 

At the narrowest part of the motorway through a mature kauri forest, the fewest trees possible were removed to allow construction to take place. In compensation for the removal of native species across the project site, over a million trees and vegetation were planted the length of the motorway.

Robert Jones, project manager for NX2, the joint venture between Fletchers and Spanish construction company Acciona that won the contract, explained the delayed completion resulted from two unforeseen obstacles – covid, which had delayed work for months on end over the past three years, and the horrendous weather since last spring. 

A number of the workforce from the north didn’t return after lockdowns, while staff absenteeism for sickness reasons hindered completion right through to the end. 

Nevertheless, Jones – who also project-managed the motorway build from Orewa to Puhoi between 2004 and 2008 – was proud of the project’s environmental control, the removal and reuse of a massive amount of earthworks material, and the project’s excellent safety record. 

Less satisfying was the need to negotiate the final amount of cost overruns with NZTA; they are rumoured to have amounted to $170 million.

The pleasure of the motorway’s completion is in stark contrast to the reality of the dreadful road further north. The last National government was responsible for initiating the Puhoi-to-Warkworth stretch, which was started in 2016. Its intention to build the next section to Wellsford was scuppered by the 2017 Labour/NZ First coalition with significant assistance from the Green party and Julie Anne Genter as associate minister of transport. Her solution was to install some median barriers on the extremely unsafe stretch of highway through the Dome Valley between Warkworth and Wellsford.

The fact sheet put out by NZTA (it wasn’t called Waka Kotahi then) in 2017 predicted this stage of the Roads of National Significance would be finished by 2026, five years after the anticipated completion of the Warkworth section. 

It forecast a time saving of seven minutes to Te Hana, north of Wellsford, for cars and more than 10 minutes for trucks, while increasing average speeds from 70km/h to 95km/h and reducing heavy vehicle movements through Wellsford by 1400 and cars by 14,000 per day. 

At the time the indicative route was predicted to reduce deaths and serious injuries by 80%. The recent run of bad weather has seen the closure of SH1 at Brynderwyn, which only serves to highlight the drastic need for this road.

The latest information on the NZTA website, dated 2021, states work on this section of motorway is not planned to start during the present decade, although the designated route and consents are making their way through the Environment Court. 

The tragedy of this ridiculously delayed process is the complete lack of any plan to extend the motorway to Whangārei, which would contribute enormous economic benefits to Northland and is unlikely to be achieved before 2050 at the earliest because of budget constraints and New Zealand’s notoriously slow delivery of major projects. 

The distance to Te Hana is 24km compared with 18.6 km from Puhoi to Warkworth, while the remaining portion to Whangārei would be 75km. At the present rate of progress, Northland residents and businesses will be lucky to see the motorway built this century. This total neglect of the Far North is an indictment on successive governments, especially the Labour-dominant ones since 2017, which have ignored the social and economic benefits of connecting regions and communities through investment in decent infrastructure. At the same time there have been port studies suggesting Auckland’s main port should be relocated to Marsden Point when there is not even a viable rail service, let alone a proper highway.

At the 2020 general election the National Party promised to build a four-lane highway to Whangārei including a tolled tunnel through the Brynderwyns by 2040, but has not yet announced whether that undertaking will be part of its regional development plan at this year’s election. 

The economic benefit of improving road access to the north is highlighted by a comparison with Otago, where tourism contributes almost twice as high a percentage to the regional GDP as it does in Northland. Admittedly Northland has a greater proportion of heavy industry, while Otago’s tourism is boosted by Queenstown and winter sports, but the contrast is still significant. 

The completion of the latest motorway underlines what everyone knows intuitively – large infrastructure projects meet a long overdue need, they are generally delivered late and over budget, and planning for the next stage is already lagging well behind any desirable timeframe.

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