By Pauline Stewart.
It’s a week since Transport Minister, Michael Wood, also Cyclone Recovery Minister for the Coromandel, made the Government’s announcement as to the solution to reconnect Kōpu-Hikuai SH25A. “The bridge is the right solution and will connect the Coromandel in the shortest time possible. We are focused on building back better so the new bridge is resilient and fit for purpose.”
Three options had been considered and investigated in the 3 months 13 days since SH25A was closed due to cracks and then a colossal slip and collapse - 1. bypass, 2. bridge, 3. retaining wall.
The decision is good news - a steel bridge -130 metres long traversing the same pathway as the collapsed highway. The tender process is underway, with a contract for the bridge to be awarded at the end of June with work expected to start in July, and an estimated finishing date of early 2024.
Speaking to a crowded media gathering at Thames Council’s Chambers last Tuesday, 9 May at 9.30am, Minister Wood continued, “We are acutely aware of the impact that this road being closed has had on businesses. We want to work with them and continue to support them. You have our absolute commitment on that,” he said. “We know time is of the essence with this project - it has to be safe, and it has to be resilient. I want to reassure communities we will leave no stone unturned to re-open the road as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
Mayor Len responded to the announcement at the media conference, “….it was reassuring to be present, and to hear that speed and resilience were top of mind in the government’s decision, and that the bridge would provide a resilient solution to connect the Coromandel "in the shortest time possible".
In terms of the cost of building the bridge; from the National Land Transport Fund, “We fund 100% of the repairs to the state highway network and a significant portion of the cost for local roads.”
This means the total cost of the SH 25A proposed bridge will be met from central government funds. It was stated by Minister Woods that the cost will be between $30-40 million, but at this point, that is not an accountant’s calculation.
The site of the collapse of the highway was not a known risk prior to mid-January 2023. Cracks were first noticed in the road on 15 January, and the site progressed from there, exacerbated by the weather event on Friday, 27 January. SH25A was closed on that Friday to ensure the safety of road users, following the formation of deep cracks in the road after Ex-Cyclone Hale. Just a short time later, the cracked section of the road at the summit slipped away during the Auckland Anniversary storm event.
This road is a vital link to the life of the Coromandel Peninsula. At the SH25A Hikuai telemetry site, it suggests approximately 3700 vehicles per day use this road; of those 311 are heavy (8.4%). In school holiday periods and long weekends this amount of traffic doubles, and in summer, that can increase up to 8-fold.
There are any number of frequently asked questions concerning the opening of SH25A. Although most are around the date of opening, no one is prepared just now to promise a fixed date even though portions of the bridge will be constructed off-site to alleviate extreme weather delays.
Clear statements have already been made that the resources of expertise, finance, and personnel will not be an impediment to completing the bridge and opening the highway. Therefore, another frequently asked question of Waka Kotahi (NZ Transport Agency) needs close attention. The response effects the state of the current road network on the Coromandel Peninsula and keeps businesses, all those with health issues and those who travel for education, anxious and tested.
Question: What are you doing for the rest of the Coromandel roads affected by the recent weather events and now part of the SH25A detour?
The response from Waka Kotahi is firstly one of reassurance - reassuring residents, and businesses that ‘a functional state highway network is vital for daily life and that they are prioritising maintenance and repairs.’ The following work detail for SH25 network as being underway is set out in the following points (numbered to help readers): -
1. Regular monitoring of significant slip sites and geotechnical inspections every two months.
2. Prioritising the clearing of drains and culverts.
3. Continuing to clear vegetation to maintain a clear space for heavy vehicles.
4. Monitoring traffic and truck volumes around the Peninsula.
5. Monitoring travel times around the Peninsula so any causes of significant delay are identified and quickly acted on.
6. Finalising destination signage changes so visitors find the best way to their destination.
7. Continuing to assess the safety and capacity of one-lane bridges and critical intersections.
8. Carefully planning of the timing and type of maintenance work to minimise impacts on road users, landowners and communities.
It can be summised that of the eight points of ‘work presently underway’ there is no real construction included as being ‘underway’ nor any major maintenance. The validity of the points above cannot be disputed. All are necessary but there is the nagging realisation that we are in this extreme situation because the state of the road network was already inadequate for the traffic and amount of heavy vehicles working the Coromandel Peninsula. It is clear to most that the small population, extent and quality of the road network needed in a mountainous peninsula and the amount of rate payer funding is simply not an equal sum. Still, there is no discounting that maintenance and development in line with the growing population, service industries and tourism, has been pointedly lacking over successive governments. Let that not be totally forgotten just because we have had ferocious storm events and drenching rainfalls.
With point seven, surely the assessing of the safety and capacity of one lane bridges will not be a lengthy undertaking or costly, as replacement and two lanes is a glaringly overdue, essential step. Otherwise, there is really no road network but a string of shabby connections to some very good stretches of well-engineered road and one future fine steel bridge.
There are not the financial resources to turn those eight points of ‘assessing’ and ‘monitoring’ into action that will have concurrent construction occurring. All weight of engineering will be on the SH25A bridge. Or will there be some extra investment? Will the elections change this situation?
This overview is not unique to the Coromandel Peninsula or merely to road networks.
Resilience is now a most popular word in terms of cyclone recovery and community development. If we are to enable societies to function and face their future as resilient units, regional governments need to be less defensive and more responsive, bureaucracy needs to be trimmed and opened up to be more vulnerable. In addition, the trimming of burdensome aspects of the RMA, the cost of consultancy compared to the cost of delivering outcomes, closer connection between governance an operations will all help this transformational change necessary for hope and for the person going about their life to feel they have some power. After all, the point is to enable the people to be resilient - councils, governments, politicians come and go.
Tapu-Coroglen Road has been closed to through traffic since a section of it collapsed into the river below during the recent cyclones. The closure point is approximately 10.2 km from the junction with SH25 at Tapu.
Thames Coromandel District Council’s roading team is working towards a temporary alternative route for the Tapu-Coroglen Road, estimated ready for use by June this year. A permanent repair to the road is being worked on, estimated completion by December.
Caption: Assessment work is carried out in early May 2023.