It's as Auckland as ... well, more than the Skytower and almost as much as Rangitoto. But has the harbour bridge reached the end of the road? John Landrigan investigates.
Heading north in the family Holden, packed for camping, was always exciting for a 10-year-old. Five hours after leaving home we would approach Auckland Harbour Bridge.
Back in the 1980s it was the biggest structure we'd seen - well, we did live in New Plymouth - and the only one that Dad had to pass change out the driver's window to use.
As well as the impressively steep gradient, its giant span was about as long as some of the towns we'd just meandered through.
Architectural marvel? Perhaps. Built to last? If we keep using it, apparently not. Fulfilling its objective? Debatable.
As often as the cars to- and fro- across "the Coathanger", conversations around the region's barbecues and coffee machines turn to what needs to be done to improve our ability to get from one side of the Waitemata to the other.
Now The Aucklander can reveal another chapter to throw into the concrete and steel mix of our city's beloved icon.
By Government decree, the bridge, having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, will be priced for removal and the surrounding feeder motorways assessed for future development. That's development as in housing, shops and offices, not roads.
The reason? Transport Minister Stephen Joyce has chosen to ignore strongly-argued recommendations from five major regional organisations for a road-rail tunnel from Downtown Auckland to the Shore. Instead, he wants to open up debate about another bridge.
Reports of the current bridge falling to concrete cancer or some other catastrophe, fuelled by the problematic state of the "Nippon clip-ons", are exaggerated, says the agency charged with maintaining it. But it's hard to ignore the thought that something needs to be done when we're spending $86 million to patch it up and this same agency talks of its "economic life", its "future viability", of it becoming "maxed out", and the "resilience of the network" or of it having a "finite lifespan".
In 2008, the NZ Transport Agency combined with Auckland Regional Council, Auckland and North Shore City councils and Auckland Regional Transport Authority to find an alternative. The tight five commissioned a $1.3 million report from Sinclair Knight Merz consultants and whittled 160 options down to just one preference.
Four tunnels, they chimed, will alleviate the strain on the bridge - two road tunnels with three lanes in each direction and two separate single-rail tunnels. The rail tracks would cover 4km from Esmonde Rd to Britomart; the road tunnels roughly 3km from Esmonde Rd under the soon-to-be-developed Wynyard Quarter to Fanshawe St.
Treasury estimated the cost to be as high as $6 billion. The Transport Agency puts the bill between $3-4 billion, subject to more "detailed engineering".
More consultants, to be named early next month, will be paid another $12 million to assess traffic flow, environmental and economic impact, planning and engineering for a tunnel and bridge.
This follows studies conducted in 1988, 1997, 2002 and 2003 to find an alternative.
And after being part of "finalising" a preferred tunnel route in 2008, Tommy Parker - the Transport Agency's state highways manager for Auckland and Northland - says these consultants will also assess:
- if a bridge is cheaper than tunnels
- if thousands of hectares of prime waterfront land at the bridge's entry and exit points at St Marys Bay and Onewa Rd can be redeveloped
- dismantling the harbour bridge.
Does that mean knocking it down, you ask? Not according to Mr Joyce.
Despite saying, "There are no actual plans to dismantle the existing bridge", he does see a need to appraise its removal "to cater for advocates of a larger replacement bridge" and to "better understand all parameters".
Auckland City Mayor John Banks, North Shore's Andrew Williams and Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee are not impressed. They believe burrowing under the foreshore and seabed is the best way forward.
As we've seen, their surprisingly united front has binned 159 other options. These included a bridge from Meola Reef to Birkenhead, train-only tunnels and lanes feeding traffic into Grafton Gully rather than into the CBD.
The 2008 study suggested the existing bridge become an arterial route to the tunnels. That's to say, Auckland Harbour Bridge would be kept and used for light traffic, buses, cycling and walkways.
Building an additional bridge was not favoured because of the visual impact of both bridges on the harbour and surrounding areas like Westhaven Marina, St Marys Bay and Northcote Point.
Picture up to 14 lanes of traffic plus two train tracks criss-crossing two bridges within cooee of each other and the city.
Then think of a second bridge exiting on the doorsteps of thousands of swanky apartments and seaside boulevards planned for Wynyard Quarter.
Mr Parker reiterates the aesthetic concerns: "Previous work undertaken by a panel of experts and architects said they had significant concerns with two bridges in close proximity. The recommendation was a tunnel."
Pressed, Mr Joyce says he is now factoring the Anzac Centenary Bridge Group into his portfolio. Led by former Auckland City Council transport committee chair and university engineering manager Richard Simpson, the group provided costs and technical details to support its case for a new bridge over much the same route as the tight five's tunnels.
It envisages bowling the harbour bridge when a bigger one - carrying traffic, trains, pedestrians and cyclists - has been built.
The group wants its $3 billion option under way to commemorate the Anzac centenary in 2015.
It would be subsidised by selling 5km of prime waterfront land occupied by the bridge feeder motorways (and also accommodating a growing population near the centre of the city). Estimates from the group, made up of powerful industry players and lobbyists, suggest the land's worth at more than $1 billion.
Brian Plimmer, of Northcote Pt Residents Association, is unsure about selling harbourside land to fund another crossing: "I would like to think about returning it to reserve land.
"I can imagine a lot of people wanting to get their hands on it. There's no more valuable land with the views and the harbour."
He believes it would be a tragedy if the bridge were removed. But, if it became a secondary crossing for pedestrians and cyclists, land would be freed up.
The decision to price the bridge's removal also collides with the Government's urgency to build the $450 million Victoria Park tunnel which eases traffic onto it. Mr Parker says the tunnel would become "redundant" if the bridge were demolished.
Mr Lee doubts the harbour bridge can survive and is baffled by Mr Joyce ignoring the tight five's tunnel dream.
"Where's the integrated management? It seems confused when the minister floats another idea for a replacement bridge."
He says if the Government can spend $2 billion on the northern "holiday route" (the Waiwera-Puhoi toll road) it should build a Shore-CBD line with more obvious financial benefits.
"As time goes by you think there must be something wrong with the bridge. [The Transport Agency] are constantly sending out mixed signals. We go to these show-and-tell events and we keep getting these hints."
Improving public transport has always been one of Mr Lee's priorities and is one of the key reasons he backs another crossing.
Trains' difficulties in navigating each option may also play a part in the final decision. Auckland is currently in the market for electric rail. The current bridge's incline is said to be too steep for trains and a new bridge would have to cater for shipping.
Train manufacturers say they'd have trouble putting an electric train underground at a price the Goverment could accept.
Our car, admittedly old, conked out at the toll gates during rush hour. As kids cowering in the back seat, we could see every overheated motorist stalled behind us.
Those motorists had been angry for decades and have continued to be angry for further decades over bottlenecks and gloomy forecasts of a bridge too small, too weak.
When trucks were banned from the outer lanes in 2007, the public started to get jittery about the bridge's future.
Since then, the amount of steel needed to reinforce the clip-ons has jumped from 313 tonnes to 920 tonnes, the budget from $45 million to $86 million. There is still no certainty heavy traffic will be allowed back on them.
A 20-year lifespan has been bandied about; so have 30, 40 and even 100 years.
The main strengthening work begun in August 2008 will be finished later this year. Mr Parker says his agency will assess whether the truck ban will be lifted when the work is completed.
So, can we just do what Auckland's best at - nothing? Some pundits say there's nothing wrong with the bridge's capacity to move traffic. Improvements will only deliver people more efficiently and quickly to the gridlock elsewhere.
Others are thrilled at the prospects another crossing might offer for rail, pedestrians and cyclists.
It is, after all, as wide as the lanes that feed it. Any traffic jams happen further down the motorway, at Esmonde Rd and the Victoria Park dogleg.
Why are we looking at an alternative? The Western Ring Road is being developed to reduce the number of cars on the Southern Motorway and Victoria Park tunnel to speed traffic along.
"The whole thing can be retained for 100 years [but] it can't continue to absorb growth," says Mr Parker.
Late last year, the Government declared a harbour crossing a priority in the new, 20-year infrastructure plan but has yet to allocate money.
Mr Joyce says he favours whichever option will relieve a lot of the pressure on the existing bridge.
"It's my expectation that construction will begin in the next 10-13 years. It's expected to take about six years to complete construction."
If he's correct, the bridge versus tunnel debate has to be resolved soon. As does, whether our old Coathanger is part of the plan.
Having fast-tracked the Victoria Park tunnel, many believe this is the Government to get roads built, and fast.
You'd hope we don't fall into the same type of short-term thinking that allowed past leaders to ignore calls for more lanes and pedestrian access than the original four-lane bridge.
We'd hope we don't repeat the past and go for a cheap option that will not meet our growing needs.
You'd hope it was something that might amaze any 10-year-old going on holiday through the Big Smoke.
The NZ Transport Agency is spending $86 million to patch up the iconic bridge.
It is cautious about its future
Studies were conducted in 1988, 1997, 2002 and 2003 to find an alternative
The 'tight five' of transport, regional and city council agencies 'finalised' a preferred tunnel route in 2008
Transport Minister Steven Joyce now wants consultants to assess:
- whether a bridge is cheaper than tunnels
- whether thousands of hectares of prime waterfront land at the bridge's entry and exit points at St Marys Bay and Onewa Rd can be redeveloped
- dismantling the harbour bridge
The tight five
narrowed 160 harbour crossing options to three in 2008:
Option 1 Esmonde to Britomart (rail-only bridge or tunnel)
Option 2 Esmonde to Britomart and SH1/SH16 through Wynyard Quarter (rail and road, bridge or tunnel)
Option 3 Esmonde to Britomart and Grafton (rail and road, tunnel only)
This short-list was reduced to Option 2 with all five organisations expressing a preference for a tunnel only. There would be four tunnels - two road crossings with three lanes each; one rail tunnel each for north and south trains. The present harbour bridge would be retained with or without clip-ons for light traffic, pedestrians and cyclists.
ANZAC Centenary Bridge Group
This wide-ranging think-tank suggests Option 4 - a new 3.3km bridge between Onewa Rd and Wynyard Point. The bridge would include a two-tiered deck with general and heavy traffic lanes, plus rail lanes, pedestrian and cycle access. The new bridge would replace the existing Coathanger. Sections of motorway along the St Marys Bay and Northcote foreshores be sold for urban development. It would hope to begin work before the Anzac centenary in 2015.
More reading, see www.bridge2015.org.nz