Auckland’s border may have been lifted, but Covid-19 will still be a nuisance driving to the bach and the beach this summer.

Before the virus hit New Zealand last year, the NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi was confident the Pūhoi to Warkworth highway and Hamilton bypass would be open for motorists this summer, making it faster and safer to drive to holiday hotspots.

But like bad weather, which can delay highway projects, Covid is causing all sorts of headaches for the road-builders and pushing back the opening dates of the last sections of a 200km clear run from Warkworth to south of Cambridge on SH1.

Motorists driving north of Auckland will only be able to marvel at the impressive Arawhiti ki Ōkahu and Arawhiti ki Pūhoi viaducts at the southern end of the new 18.5km highway officially named Ara Tūhono, or “connecting path”.

Waka Kotahi national manager commercial Andy Thackwray cannot say when the new road will open and whether it will come in on budget. The project has already shot up from the original budget of $780 million to $878m. It was due to open this summer and when Covid delayed the final earthworks season last summer, the opening date was pushed back to May next year.

Waka Kotahi is being cagey on further delays and cost overruns, saying all the projects in Auckland are still working under Covid restrictions and experiencing supply chain issues with materials like timber piles, steel and electrical products. The weather also plays a part.

Nevertheless, work ploughs on and the Northern Express Group(NX2) and Fletcher/Acciona, who are in charge of construction, are making progress while continuing to follow Covid-19 health and safety rules.

Thackwray says a third, or 52,000 tonnes, of road pavement has been placed and, at the northern end, work is underway on a roundabout and buildings for a joint venture of Higgins and Acciona, who will maintain the motorway for 25 years as part of a public-private partnership for the project.

At the southern end, the two viaducts have been completed. This involved huge concrete girders weighing up to 50 tonnes each being trucked to the site from Napier and lifted into place, four at a time, onto the Pūhoi viaduct using massive crawler cranes.

The 2021 planting season has also seen more than 500,000 plants put in across the project, the grassing of slopes and the completion of five stormwater treatment wetlands.

In August this year, the Government scrapped a proposal for a toll on the new highway of $2.40 for cars and $4.80 for trucks.

When the project does eventually open, Thackwray said it will chop 11 minutes off the current route and be a much safer and resilient drive for the 24,000 vehicles who use the road every day.

The drive north to Warkworth will feature natural forms, a kauri reserve at bridge level looking down on the Pūhoi River, 50m-high cut slopes with layers of rock forms breaking out to valley views – all following a curved pathway.

A little further north, safety work is behind schedule on a $35m project to make a dangerous 15km stretch of SH1 through Dome Valley.

Known as the “killing fields” and dotted with white crosses to mark some of the more than 35 people who have been killed in crashes since 2000, Dome Valley is being widened, median safety barriers installed and additional roadside barriers to “catch” vehicles running off the road.

Waka Kotahi national manager infrastructure delivery Mark Kinvig said Covid restrictions and unforeseen ground conditions on the first of five sections are presenting challenges for the programme and budgets.

The three-year project was set down for completion in 2021, but Waka Kotahi is not saying when it thinks the job will be finished.

In Auckland itself, the new motorway connection between SH1 and SH18 at Constellation Drive on the North Shore also faces delays and uncertain costs, says Kinvig.

What is called the “Northern Corridor Improvements” project includes extending the Northern Busway from Constellation to Albany station and 7km of walking and cycling.

The project, estimated to cost $700m, has made good progress on the busway extension, due to open in stages next year.

Work continues on the SH1-SH18 underpass to complete the western ring route – a direct connection for motorists coming from the north and wanting to travel west. A “big dig” is underway to excavate the equivalent of six Olympic-size swimming pools of material, or 16,000cu m, to turn the hole into a functioning motorway underpass.

The only other significant motorway project underway in Auckland is stage 1 of widening SH1 to provide a third lane in each direction between Papakura and Drury at a cost of $655m. Work started in March this year and is expected to take five years.

In June, the Government scrapped stage 2 of the project for a new interchange at Drury South and interchange improvements at Papakura and Drury as part of its revised “NZ Upgrade Programme” as part of a move away from building new roads to tackle climate change.

The last missing piece of the jigsaw is the Hamilton bypass.

Upgrading SH1 south of the Bombay Hills began in the early 1990s when a two-lane road hugged the banks of the Waikato River. Since then various roading improvements have been made culminating with the last seven sections coming under the umbrella of the “Waikato Expressway” under National in 2009.

Between 2012 and last year, six of the seven sections have opened, leaving motorists with the hassle of navigating local roads, roundabouts and sets of traffic lights to get through Hamilton.

The Hamilton bypass is a 21.8km road that starts at the Lake Rd junction with the Ngaruawahia section in the north. It then runs south on roughly the boundary of Hamilton City Council and Waikato District Council, to the east of Hamilton.

Anyone familiar with long-running roadworks just south of Hamilton at Tamahere will not be surprised that is where the new bypass connects with SH1.

From there, it’s a nice drive on the Cambridge section of the Waikato Expressway, one of two sections of motorway in New Zealand with a 110km/h speed limit. The other section is the Tauranga east link toll road.

Waka Kotahi Waikato and Bay of Plenty regional manager infrastructure delivery Jo Wilton said the last section of the 102km four-lane Waikato Expressway – the Hamilton bypass -is heading to the finish line.

The bypass with half the new asphalt laid was on the home straight to open at the end of 2021, but Wilton said Covid meant key Auckland-based crews were stuck in lockdown for several months and there were disruptions with the supply of resources.

Unlike her Auckland/Northland counterparts, Wilton said the 22km bypass is expected to be flowing by mid-2022.

In the past year, the cost of the project has crept up from $607m to $637m. Wilton said there is a “significant amount of cost uncertainty on this project” due to the impacts of the pandemic and it is too soon to know what the final cost will be.

“The Hamilton section is starting to look very finished in places, with asphalt done, line-marking, barriers, lighting and signage in place.

“All structures – 16 bridges and an underpass – are completed and by Christmas the final small areas of cement-stabilised road pavement will be finished and we will have 70 per cent of the 110,000 tonnes of asphalt down,” said Wilton.

The main activity is taking place south of Ruakura, where a redesign was needed to lift the road away from an iron-based algal sludge, and at the southern interchange at Tamahere where the project meets the current SH1 route south of Hamilton.

This has been a real challenge from the start with work occurring in a confined space alongside 30,000 vehicles a day using the existing route, said Wilton.

In recent months a new local road and bridge connecting the eastern and western sides of the bypass at the southern interchange has opened to traffic, as has the Cambridge Rd bridge taking south-bound traffic from the city to merge with the expressway.

This summer will see the safety barriers completed, including 77km of wire rope, 7km of concrete barriers, 500 light poles in place and most of the 700 directional signs.

The safety measures, said Wilton, will make the bypass a “really, really safe road” when motorists come to drive on it.

On the environmental front, motorists will not notice it as they drive over the bridges, but 10ha of streams and gullies on the city fringe will be restored and more than 600,000 native and exotic plans will be planted along the route.

Once the Waikato Expressway is completed it will cut 35 minutes off the drive from the top of the Bombay Hills to south of Cambridge.

“We expect the Hamilton section to open in mid-2022, completing the $2.4 billion investment in the Waikato Expressway,” said Wilton.

Waka Kotahi safe network programme director David van Staden said in mid-2022 the transport agency hoped to make an announcement on whether the Waikato Expressway will have a 110km/h speed limit between Hampton Downs and Tamahere.

The proposal attracted more than 700 submissions and Waka Kotahi is carefully considering them, its own assessments and going through the legal process before making a decision, he said.

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate said Waka Kotahi has kept the council in the loop and advised earlier this year that completion of the bypass would be in mid-2022.

She said completion of the Waikato Expressway will be key to unlocking economic activity and population growth on the east of the city, creating thousands of new jobs, better freight and transport connections and more housing.

The expressway links with Tainui Group Holdings’ development of the Ruakura Super hub, comprising the 30ha Ruakura inland port between TGH and the Port of Tauranga and a logistics and industrial precinct expected to create between 6000 and 12,000 jobs.

What’s more, the expressway is part of the “Golden Triangle” between Auckland and Tauranga that generates 52 per cent of the country’s GDP, said Southgate.

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