Waterview Tunnel is a new chapter in Auckland's roading historyby Maria Slade
A project that was once the bane of residents' lives in a small Auckland suburb has finally reached fruition, bringing hopes it can deliver some respite from the traffic congestion increasingly choking the city.
Less than two thirds that number will walk and cycle through the latest part of Auckland’s motorway network over the next two weeks, but not for want of demand.
Within two days of the government’s announcement that the $1.4 billion, 2.4 kilometre twin tunnels will finally open in early July, 60,500 free tickets to a series of public events beginning on June 18 were snapped up.
Kiwis in other parts of the country will scoff at this mania, but it is not they who endure the annually worsening Auckland commute. Such is the pent-up demand for the road that will at last provide an alternative route around the isthmus that a slight sense of euphoria has set in.
The statistics have become familiar over the five long years it has taken to build the motorway. The extension to State Highway 20 (SH20), or the Waterview Connection as it’s known, is New Zealand’s biggest and most complex roading project. It is the final piece of the 48km Western Ring Route linking Manukau and the North Shore. It features our longest road tunnels, created by Alice, the purpose-built German boring machine. Video of Alice breaking through at the completion of the second tunnel just about broke the internet as well.
Now that it’s a reality, Auckland motorists have focused on what concerns them most - whether it will bring any relief from the daily traffic jams. Project manager, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), is firm that it never promised anyone a rose garden. The twin tunnels will deliver between 2,300 to 3,400 additional vehicles an hour in each direction onto the city’s motorways in the peak periods, significantly adding to volumes on the Northwestern Motorway to and from the central city, and at the other end on the Southwestern Motorway through to Manukau.
“Opening of the Waterview Connection is not expected to remove congestion from the network, especially during peak periods,” NZTA says.
What it will provide is a better balance of traffic flows, the agency says. Suburbs surrounding the project such as Mt Albert, Mt Roskill and Mt Eden which become practically landlocked by congestion in the commuter peaks are likely to be the biggest winners. NZTA estimates the new tunnels will take up to 2,500 cars per two-hour peak period off local roads which at the moment are the only routes in and out of these neighbourhoods.
Perhaps most importantly, the fully connected SH20 will provide a direct motorway route to the airport and a way of getting across Auckland other than the overburdened State Highway One.
The total benefits of Waterview are estimated to be $4.2 billion, including time and congestion cost savings, vehicle operating costs and fuel consumption savings. The wider economic benefits are put at $430 million, including local job generation, improved productivity from reduced travel times and increased accessibility.
No wonder the residents of our largest city are star-struck by their new bit of roading.
Ten years of “uncertainty and stress”
When the tunnels were going to open had become an Auckland dinner party topic.
After the project missed its Easter deadline the frustration and intrigue surrounding the three-month delay proved fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Everything from sub-standard steel to the tunnels flooding during the recent wild storms had allegedly turned Waterview into a white elephant.
NZTA says the real problems - an intermittent fault in the tunnels’ jet fan and water extraction pump system which required a change in software, and damaged diaphragms in the valves - have now been fixed and given the all-clear.
The suburb of Waterview is a small grid of streets squeezed between the Waitemata Harbour, the Northwestern Motorway, and major local arterial route the Great North Road.
Its residents and those of adjoining suburbs know more about frustration than most.
State Highway 20 has cast a shadow over the area since the early 2000s, when NZTA’s forerunner Transit investigated no less than four different surface options for building the remaining part of the Southwestern Motorway, which for a good number of years ended abruptly at Mt Roskill.
Unlike the Mt Roskill stretch no land had ever been designated for the Waterview Connection. The transport authorities faced deep-rooted opposition to ploughing a motorway through a residential neighbourhood, and the feeling among community groups is that Transit consulted with them only because it was forced to.
The anxiety over what design would be chosen is something I experienced personally. I owned a home in the path of two of the proposed routes, and at various times a motorway was going to go alongside, around, and then finally under my house.
Current Finance Minister Steven Joyce is crowing about the difference Waterview will make to Auckland now, but it was he as Transport Minister in 2009 who prolonged the uncertainty by throwing out the previous Labour government’s more expensive plan for twin tunnels. Instead the new National government favoured a combination of surface roading, tunnelling, and cut-and-cover design.
Eventually technology, politics and budgets caught up with each other and a more affordable, fully underground solution was reached. Because Waterview is a Road of National Significance the government referred applications for resource consents to a Board of Inquiry and in 2011 the project finally got the green light.
The anguish the community had been put through was not lost on the Board. “There is an upside and a downside to such an extensive period of consultation, the upside being the extent to which the community is hopefully adequately informed, and the downside being the period of time for which people suffer uncertainty and stress. The latter aspect is particularly acknowledged by this Board,” it wrote in its decision.
‘Magic’ waterfront property lost
Former Waterview resident Peter McCurdy went to so many focus groups and ‘Tunnel or Nothing’ meetings in the decade before his home was finally demolished that the chronology is now “a bit of a blur”.
“It just occupied people’s whole lives for quite a while,” he says.
He thinks it came into sharp focus for him in 2003, when Transit had whittled its list of four possible routes down to two. One of these went directly through his Cowley St property on the banks of Oakley Creek, near the existing Northwestern Motorway.
McCurdy purchased the 1600sqm section with its 1950s fibrolite house and riparian rights in 1982. He later discovered it was the site of the 19th century Star Mills flour mill and tannery, part of the original European settlement of Waterview.
“I had no idea what I was buying, no idea of its history. I just knew it as this vastly overgrown deceased estate right next to the creek, and thought that was fairly magic,” he says.
McCurdy and his partner Robyn Mason fought a heroic battle to save their home, not least because of the site’s historical significance.
It was not to be. They received notice of the government’s intention to compulsorily acquire the property under the Public Works Act, a process McCurdy describes as “brutal”. He believes the price they finally got in 2012 did not reflect the property’s true value. “A lot of that was intangibles, in the sense that we can no longer jump off the back lawn and into the creek for a swim, we can’t keep our boat at our back door.”
If there is a silver lining for McCurdy it is the stringent conditions the Board of Inquiry imposed for mitigating the effects of the motorway.
These included paying heed to the historical sites around the former Cowley St. The area beneath the forest of towering columns holding up Auckland’s newest Spaghetti Junction is now a park and Heritage Trail.
The trail is largely the result of McCurdy and Mason’s work alongside a dedicated group of local historians.
“We were just incredibly stubborn and staunch… We had no notion whether they would take any notice or not, so we just kept at it,” McCurdy says.
Fighting the good fight
Margi Watson is a familiar face in central west Auckland.
She is on the Albert-Eden Local Board, chairs the Waterview School board, and was at the centre of the Tunnel or Nothing lobby.
People from a host of different community groups knew they had to form a united front, she says.
“This project wouldn’t have delivered what it is delivering at a community level, environmental, heritage perspective, if the community hadn’t stood up and fought for what was right and what was needed,” she says.
Several hundred homes were lost as a result of the construction, the bulk of them near the motorway interchange at Waterview. It’s changed the suburb, Watson says, but there have been benefits. The school has been rebuilt, and Waterview’s new park complete with BMX track, basketball courts and water play area has become a destination playground.
One of the more impressive mitigations is the Waterview Shared Path, a state-of-the-art cycleway including a long pedestrian bridge across Oakley Creek that will connect the area at either end with the city’s existing cycle network.
As a result of the community’s fight for such amenities Waterview and its surrounds are about to become one of the most cycling and walking friendly areas of the city, Watson says.
“What we’ve achieved here through that hard work has changed the game for everyone about what you can expect.”
Friends of Oakley Creek founding member Wendy John battled alongside Watson, and agrees Waterview has set a benchmark for other major roading projects.
Most days John can be found somewhere along the long stretch of creek reserve, which features the Auckland isthmus’ only waterfall.
The original overground route for the motorway would have bulldozed right through the creek, destroying an important ecological corridor and a massive amount of green space, John says.
“Our approach to it was we opposed it to start with, but when we knew it was going to go ahead, we thought, ‘well we’ve just got to get in there and get the best deal that we can’.”
The ultimate outcome is probably the best the community could have got, she believes.
Ironically life improved after the Board of Inquiry decision and the Well Connected Alliance took over, the community groups say.
The Well Connected Alliance - comprised of NZTA, Fletcher Construction, McConnell Dowell and other firms involved in building the project - were responsive and good to work with, John says.
“They were probably the groundbreakers in relation to community consultation and engagement. Everything we raised they would go away and look at seriously and come back to us,” John says.
She gives the example of an ugly control building which was to be erected at the southern end of the tunnels in Alan Wood Reserve.
"We said, ‘why can’t you put it underground?’ They came back to us and said, ‘yeah, we can’.”
The Waterview Connection runs through five suburbs and from day one the team made a commitment to be the best neighbours possible, NZTA said in a statement.
That included operating a 24 hour phone line, holding regular meetings with community leaders and community barbecues at either end of the tunnels.
“Staff organised an auction to raise thousands of dollars for a local decile 1 school needing new computer equipment,” NZTA said.
“(They) have also… joined working bees to help clean up Oakley Creek, donated firewood, undertaken local jobs for people, and helped drivers in trouble on roads near the project.”
I will be among those biking through the Waterview Tunnel when it opens to cyclists for the first and only time next week. As I do I will reflect on how far the neighbourhood has come since the days of worrying about whether a motorway would be built at the edge of our gardens.
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