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Preparations for road and rail tunnels under the Waitemata do not mean Aucklanders will lose their defining 50-year-old harbour bridge any time soon.

The Transport Agency is taking steps to protect a route for tunnels to be dug between Esmonde Rd and Spaghetti Junction via the Wynyard Tank Farm for about $4 billion, but possibly not for 30 years.

But Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee said talk about tunnels, while the agency refused to make provision in the meantime for walking and cycling and the Government stalled the $1 billion rail electrification project, showed a lack of vision.

"It's always jam tomorrow for Auckland."

Agency regional director Wayne McDonald said a route designation needed to be applied for by year's end to ensure foundations for new buildings from the Tank Farm through to Victoria Park would not obstruct any future tunnels.

He was confident the main truss bridge would continue to serve Auckland for at least another 50 years, even if eventually downgraded to a connection for local traffic, pedestrians and cyclists, while losing its State Highway 1 status to the tunnels. He said even the problematic box-girder clip-ons should have another 30 to 40 years left.

Mr McDonald admits tunnels are far from certain, despite consensus among councils that they would be better than another bridge.

There is nothing new about the idea of digging tunnels and running trains, as well as vehicles, through them - it was suggested in the 1920s as part of an Auckland rail network.

The concept was fiercely debated before a royal commission recommended in 1946 that a road bridge be built instead.

Even the man who brought the bridge to fruition, four-term Auckland mayor Sir John Allum, kept dangling the tunnels idea before Aucklanders. In 1954 he said they could expect to see "two tubes" carrying electric trains under the harbour as North Shore's population grew over the following 25 to 30 years. He was trying to ease concern over a budgetary limitation put on the bridge by Prime Minister Sidney Holland, restricting it to four lanes with no provision for rail or pedestrians.

But hardly had the bridge opened 50 years ago today than Sir John warned of an urgent need to duplicate it to prevent gridlock as boom-time arrived for North Shore.

What he hankered after was another bridge and even the addition of the four clip-on lanes did not stop investigations of a route across Meola Reef between Pt Chevalier and Birkenhead, which provoked fierce opposition before being dropped in the mid-1970s.

Despite the hoopla that surrounded the bridge's opening on May 30, 1959, Mr Lee sees it as a "sad" indictment of short-sighted planning which continues to hamper Auckland.

"The fact it didn't cater for all forms of transport is a product of a lack of vision and the people who built the bridge sold Auckland short."

Mr Lee said the bridge's inadequacy for even the growth of local traffic was compounded when the Holland Government yielded to lobbying by Sir John to make it part of SH1, instead of developing the western ring route for that role. That led to the destruction of Auckland suburbs such as Grafton and Freemans Bay "and now we're trying to put back the ring road at enormous cost".

* Auckland Harbour Bridge: 50 Years of a City Icon

The New Zealand Herald covered the bridge story from the beginning.
Today its rich photographic store of the bridge's moods, its construction, and its striking presence is celebrated in a new book, Auckland Harbour Bridge: 50 Years of a City Icon .
Author Renee Lang delved into the treasure trove and brings to life a fascinating history with more than 100 images.
The book is available at most bookstores, $24.99 (Random House) or you can contact the New Zealand Herald photosales department to order a copy: email, or phone 09 373 6093.