By Pauline Stewart.
The bridge to connect SH 25A with the rest of the world is on track to open by the end of March 2024 and the scale of this enormous and vital project for a small country, is very impressive.
Last Friday, 18 August, Waka Kotahi, New. Zealand’s Transport Agency organised and hosted a visit to the construction site of political dignitaries - national and local, both national and local media personnel, business representatives on the Coromandel and elected representatives.
Our mayor Len Salt was there and our local MP, Scot Simpson with Minister David Parker (Transport), Deputy Prime Minister and Cyclone Recovery Minister, Carmel Sepuloni. Waka Kotahi leaders were there and construction representatives.
SH25A was closed at the Taparahi summit on Friday, January 27, to ensure the safety of road users, when deep cracks formed in the road after ex-Cyclone Hale. The cracked section of the road at the summit then fell away during the Auckland Anniversary storm event, a huge slip occurred, collapsing and scouring out a 120-metre chasm, spewing earth 1.6kilometres down the hill/cliff face.
What followed for everyone was a period of waiting with no access and more heavy rain and storms and then months of research and assessment, reviewing the options of what could be done to restore connection. Three options were considered and researched; - 1) a bypass around the slip 2) a bridge 3) retain and repair the current site.
The choice was a bridge, the best option – safer, efficient.
The design team are Tonkin and Taylor and Beca. The construction work is led by McConnell Dowell.
The bridge is on track in terms of time. The budget is being quoted as $50million which is an increase from the $30-40 by previous Minister Woods. There is no denying this is a huge project and budgets were not debated on Friday. There is no obvious precedent for this project in New Zealand.
The group of 30 or so were appreciative to be able to be there and to gain an understanding of scale and method to pass on to their people. Above the site there was opportunity to view, film and interview.
At the outset, when asked, ‘What do you think of what you are seeing?’ Minister Parker responded,
“I’m an old road construction worker… working on some big projects on Stewart Island. This is an enormous project - this bridge, or viaduct really, is longer than a football field. They are going to deliver it by March next year…..and I am impressed with how they are delivering it so quickly.”
He described affirmingly how they were using existing material accessed from within New Zealand; that people were working 24/7 assembling the girders to go on top of the bridge piles; that abutment piles had already been drilled on one side; and pointed out the extent and magnitude of equipment operating on the site.
We could all see it and there is no doubt that this is a massive project.
Massive project but massive impact on communities
At the same time, there was no escaping that the loss of the SH25A has had a massive impact on the communities on the Coromandel and Mayor Len was quick to point that out. He was asked how his community was going. Mayor Len shared with the group how good it was for his communities to see this stage of the progress on the project but that it has been, and still is, tough at so many levels. “We are hurting. We are resilient but there is no doubt that it has had a great impact. There is a sense of light at the end of the tunnel - at the end of the slip.”
The question was asked if there could not be something done to get the bridge open before the summer acknowledging that going through this summer without the bridge will hurt businesses and income right across the communities.
Minister Parker responded that Waka Kotahi are pulling out all the stops to get it done as soon as possible. Everyone is doing their utmost to bring completion in early. “We are on track to deliver it by end of March and within the current budget of $50m”.
How we got to this point and what’s happening now: Jo Wilton, Regional Manager of Infrastructure Delivery and Hugh Milliken, Project Director McConnell Dowell Construction were available to provide construction detail. Jo explained the long process of going through all the options before they decided to construct a bridge and what had been done on site to date.
Hugh Millikan detailed a little of the current work. “We are literally stabilising the ground. We are keeping water out and getting it captured. We have been doing drainage diversion and redirecting the water away from the face of the hill. We are also soil nailing; not really injecting cement into the soil but mixing soil with cement to the consistency of frozen butter. We need to stand heavy cranes for the bridge construction, so the mixing of cement and soil brings it to the consistency required.
This is a preparation site. We are getting this ready for the heavy earth works of putting in the piles. We are working towards this being a construction site very soon.”
More than the Bridge is needed.
David Speirs, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency’s Director of Regional relationships for Waikato-Bay of Plenty, assured those present that there is parallel work to be done to address the high-risk sites throughout the Coromandel’s Peninsula Highway 25 network. He was indicating that this would occur while the bridge is being built - alongside the bridge construction. “As SH 25A is closed, it is a really good time to address the damaged road sites and Waka Kotahi is taking the opportunity to bring forward the work of the next three years to be done this year.” He explained that reducing the speed limits helped ease the stress of the extra volume of traffic being experienced on SH 25 and will enable Waka Kotahi to bring in the maintenance crews to do rehabilitation work. There were over 50 sites that need attention; not all critical - some presented large, some small issues.
“As Mayor Len says, the geology of this region is unpredictable. We will always have slips,” said David. “We are looking at the sites that are most at risk. We are doing a lot of work to stabilise these and we making sure we have a maintenance and a response programme for the critical sites.” He was confident that this will increase the quality of response by teams and the resilience of the sites. “But we can’t promise people there won’t be slips and disruptions.”
David Speirs concluded on an encouraging note. “We are working on the slips and rehabilitation work to build back better … so that by the time the bridge is open, what we will have is a whole Coromandel Peninsula with a robust state highway network.”
In terms of funding, Minister Parker mentioned the 50 percent increase in the budget for road maintenance. “As well as maintain, we want to build resilience into the system so we can build back better.”
One of the groups asked, “How confident are you that this bridge will last (whatever the future brings in terms of rain and cyclones and slips)?
Minister Parker, “I am very confident”.
Most people shared his optimism. Whatever frustration, criticism with the time taken so far - the design, the planning, the preparation, the commitment, the knowledge and skill is there and so is transparency of operation.
Hugh Millikan added, “Please tell readers how appreciative we are of the welcome and friendliness of the local people. They have been fantastic. Their accommodation, their hospitality and acceptance of us has been much appreciated.”
Council Road action: As of last Friday 18 August, TCDC newsletter reported:-
“Our Council has prioritised 28 sites for repair and reinstatement work this financial year. Top of the list are re-opening Tapu-Coroglen Road and repairing two slip sites on Black Jack Road (near Kuaotunu). We expect to have both jobs done by Christmas, weather permitting.”
Caption: Jo Wilton (far right) Regional Manager Infrastructure Delivery, explains the site to (from left) David