John is a senior reporter at the Bay of Plenty Times

Benefits of $225m Tauranga roading project lost after 8 years

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An increasingly common scenario on Hewletts Rd where even relatively minor incidents can create gridlock for long periods of time. Photo/file
An increasingly common scenario on Hewletts Rd where even relatively minor incidents can create gridlock for long periods of time. Photo/file

Rush-hour congestion on one of Tauranga's busiest roads is returning to levels not seen since the second Harbour Bridge opened eight years ago.

Predictions made in 2006 that Hewletts Rd would be congested within 15 to 20 years of the completion of the $225 million Harbour Link project have come true almost twice as fast as expected.

Tauranga City Council transport manager Martin Parkes said it was safe to say that traffic had increased to the point where travel time delays were probably back to pre-second harbour bridge levels.

"The investment lasted about eight years," he said.

The original prediction for 15 to 20 years was based on little change in people's travel habits.

Mr Parkes said most people still preferred to use their cars for commuter and recreational trips, with Tauranga the most car dependent city in New Zealand.

Ninety-seven per cent of all work and recreational trips were in private cars. "That is very high."

It needed to be fixed by more people using public transport and cycling or walking until Tauranga got below 90 per cent over the next five to 10 years. Other major centres were a lot less, with Hamilton close to 90 per cent, he said.

Mr Parkes said traffic counts were going up on many parts of the city's roading network, with only the older parts of the city remaining much the same.

New Zealand Transport Agency's acting highway manager Mark Haseley said the agency had been aware of congestion around Hewlett Rd for some time and was working with the council to find the best way to deal with it, especially since it was the gateway to one of New Zealand's most important ports.

The agency was also working with its regional partners to minimise traffic growth at the source by managing where residential and commercial growth occurred.

Mr Haseley said the council was leading the development of longer-term transport plans for the city, including Hewletts Rd, with options such as new sections of highway, highway widening and intersection upgrades.

"We have to target the right type of transport improvements across the city which isn't always wider and longer roads."

The MP for Tauranga and Transport Minister Simon Bridges said the congestion at peak times along Hewletts Rd would be reduced once the new link road between Baypark and Bayfair was completed. It would remove the pinch point at the roundabout with Girven Rd and keep a more constant flow of traffic along Maunganui Rd.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council chairman and former Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby said he drove Hewletts Rd nearly every day and found it particularly bad in the morning. It freed up once traffic got past Totara St and was moving towards the bridge.

He recalled the plan floated in the early 2000s to build an expressway around the other side of the airport once Hewletts Rd reached capacity again.

Mr Crosby said four laning SH29 from Maungatapu Bridge to Barkes Corner would take some of the stress off Hewletts Rd although it would always be busy.

Speaking generally about hot spots around Tauranga including Barkes Corner on SH29 and SH2 through Bethlehem, he said there had been a definite rise in congestion. "We caught up for a while but have started to slip behind again over the last 18 months to two years."

"There is a big conversation coming up about public transport and that is not a quick fix."

He blamed it on the greater activity in the city, not just population growth, and the time it took to build new roads. The announcement to build the Northern Link had been great news but it seemed unacceptable that it would take until 2022 to deliver.

"The first two years are looking at design options . . . the process is far too long. Do we have the capacity go faster - I don't know."

Mr Bridges responded that the transport investments to date in Tauranga by the Government had been massive and would continue to be massive, with the momentum of investment not slowing.

He said he shared Mr Crosby's frustration at the pace of the Northern Link and wished he could just click his fingers and make it happen quicker because the money was there.

"But unfortunately, this is a big complex project. There's consenting, design, land acquisition, final business cases that have to be gone through before a spade's in the ground."

Like the Eastern Link, he hoped the Northern Link would be completed well before schedule. "I have no doubt that the agency and its contractors will pull out all stops to do it smarter and faster."

Tauranga's high growth intersections since 2013
Girven Rd/Maunganui Rd: 17.9% increase to 33,000 vehicles a day
Hewletts Rd/Totara St: 13.2% increase to 297,000 vehicles a week
Hewletts Rd/Jean Batten Drive: 12.3% increase to 276,350 vehicles a week
Maungatapu Roundabout/SH29: 12.8% increase to 22,000 vehicles a day
Takitimu Drive/Elizabeth St: 12.5% increase to 18,000 vehicles a day
Sources: NZTA and Tauranga City Council

Proposals to ease congestion on Hewletts Rd
- More buses and greater priority for buses
- Open up bus lanes to high occupancy/car pool vehicles
- Manage access to the port by trucks
- Manage traffic in and out of side roads
Source: NZ Transport Agency

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