Coromandel Peninsula's new gateway road bridge at Kopu is expected to open to traffic next week, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and public walk-over on Saturday.
Although the Transport Agency has yet to finalise its guest list for the opening ceremony, it confirmed yesterday that the ribbon-cutting would precede the walk, from about 10am.
Traffic could be using the new two-lane bridge over the Waihou River to Kopu by Monday, but the agency is reluctant to overcommit contractors as to exactly when next week it can be opened after being tied into State Highway 25.
That will spell retirement for the existing one-lane bridge, which has served as the main route to Thames and the Coromandel Peninsula for 84 years.
It had to be governed by traffic lights, or manual stop-go controllers at holiday weekends, when drivers sometimes had to queue for more than an hour or take detours to the north of Paeroa.
The new bridge and about 2.5km of approach roads have been built for just under $40 million - about $7 million less than budgeted for - and the project has been completed six months early under encouragement from the Government.
When it opens, traffic from Auckland will head due east from the bridge to a roundabout on a new intersection with the Thames-Paeroa road, rather than having to take a dog-leg through the Kopu industrial estate.
At a width of 12.95m, the new bridge is more than three times broader than its predecessor and has a shared walking and cycling path on its northern edge.
Thames Coromandel Mayor Glenn Leach said yesterday he was thrilled the bridge would be available in good time for the Christmas holidays, but urged the Transport Agency to ensure a slip road would open simultaneously to maintain direct access to Kopu businesses. Agency project services manager Bryce Carter said that would be done as soon as possible, but the old bridge had to be closed before a final link of about 60m from the slip road could be completed.
Once the old bridge closes next week, a swing span will be opened permanently to allow boats to pass up and down the Waihou.
The new 580m bridge is high enough at 6.5m above mean sea level for river traffic to pass below.
Despite expected time savings to be offered by the new bridge, drivers heading to the Coromandel Peninsula in the holidays will face a lower speed limit of 90km/h on much of a 32km stretch of State Highway 2 east of Pokeno.
The Transport Agency intends reducing the limit from 100km/h on December 16, except for a 6.2km section of new road past Mangatawhiri. A 70km/h limit through Maramarua will also be extended slightly, to account for about 1.8km of the highway.
Agency highways manager Kaye Clark said the speed limits were being altered in time for the busy holiday season, when traffic volumes were expected to almost double to close to 24,000 vehicles a day.
She said the local community and user groups such as the Automobile Association and Road Transport Forum representing the trucking industry were consulted on a possible speed limit of 80km/h, before a compromise of 90km/h was reached.
Mr Leach welcomed the lower speed limit, but said he would prefer a more permanent solution of upgrading the road itself, plans for which have been delayed by a concentration of Government funding on the Waikato Expressway.
State Highway 2 between Pokeno and the Thames turnoff to SH25 near Mangatarata is one of the country's deadliest roads, the scene of 11 fatal crashes since the end of 2006 and about 30 in the past 10 years.