The popularity of a Bay of Plenty suburb combined with limited road access has mobilised residents to demand change. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken spoke with neighbours about their priorities and heard heaps of talk about traffic problems and possible solutions

Expanding commute

Maleta Knight is no stranger to traffic.

The Welcome Bay IT support consultant lived in Auckland for seven years before shifting to the Bay two years ago. She said she commuted by bus each day in the Big Smoke, but now works from home.

"I know council are working to try to improve public transport. It's just not regular enough for people here."

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The Bay Bus timetable shows buses run every half hour from Welcome Bay to Tauranga's CBD, for a trip scheduled to take 40 minutes, though heavy traffic can lengthen the journey.

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Welcome Bay Community Centre manager Anna Larsen said many people in her community don't have reliable private transport.

She said those commuters, plus students, must take two buses to get just about anywhere except Tauranga's CBD.

"The only school outside Welcome Bay served directly by bus is the [Tauranga] Boys' College. For the rest, it's two buses, or a bus and a long walk."

Knight is mum to two children, ages 10 and 12, who attend the Tauranga Waldorf School in Welcome Bay.

"It's got a really nice environment and has an intermediate as well, which is one reason we stayed there. It means we don't have to travel into the city to go to intermediate."

Knight said she drove against traffic when bringing her kids to school from their home on the outskirts of the suburb, above Waipuna Park. She can see a line of cars snaking towards town during her commute.

Knight and her husband chose Welcome Bay for its rural feel and affordability, but in two years of living here, they've experienced growing traffic headaches along with the rest of their neighbours.

Her husband leaves for work in the Mount at 6.30am each weekday morning to start at 7am.

"This week he said he'll have to start leaving before 6.30am, because he's not making it on time. He's noticed it just in the last year that it's gotten significantly worse, and they're still developing in Welcome Bay."

Housing proposed for the suburb could add about 4750 to 9000 residents, according to Tauranga city policy planners. They stressed more work must be done on the plan before the council determined how many new homes could be built on rural blocks. There are stakeholders to talk with, plus infrastructure, retail and commercial requirements to assess.

Current headaches and future proposed development have encouraged Knight to join the Welcome Bay Transport Forum. The group was formed in response to congestion on Welcome Bay Rd and is submitting ideas to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council for its long-term plan.

"We're trying to come together as a community and think of ideas to help solve or ease the problem. There's not going to be any one solution," Knight said.

One road

One road provides access to and from the suburb. Welcome Bay Rd is a wriggly, roughly 12km stretch, with the bulk of housing developments branching out along its first 4km closest to Tauranga. This is where commuters queue for their drives to and from work and school.

An idea mooted by city planners for a dedicated bus lane along a 450m section of Welcome Bay Rd was delayed this week after residents opposed it.

Tauranga City Council transportation manager Martin Parkes said the proposed lane would improve the reliability of buses by giving each bus a 65-car advantage at morning peaks.

He said safety was a priority and the council needed to be satisfied concerns were addressed, such as loss of a median strip which affected drivers' ability to safely turn right into driveways.

Parkes said the bus lane timeline has been pushed out a few months, giving the council a chance to monitor traffic when the Maungatapu underpass opened in June.

Meanwhile, work is due to start Monday to connect the underpass with existing roads, a project expected to take up to two weeks.

Resurfacing the SH29 Hairini and Maungatapu roundabouts is expected to happen mid-May and connecting the underpass with Turret Rd and Hairini St is due in late May.

Councillor Bill Grainger told me he's still fighting for the "total project" to happen, which would include not just the underpass, but the Hairini Bridge and four lanes up Turret Rd, too.

"It was promised by the National Government, but in the end, they decided to do the underpass first, and then hand back that state highway – 15th Ave – to council as a local road. I stood against it. I'd like to see the four lanes happen as soon as possible."

He doesn't want more development until roading is sorted, including another route out of the suburb besides the underpass.

 Johnson Reserve is one of several green spaces within Welcome Bay. Photo / Dawn Picken
Johnson Reserve is one of several green spaces within Welcome Bay. Photo / Dawn Picken

Grainger has lived in Welcome Bay 40 years and said he still enjoys it very much.

"The only thing that's a bit of a deterrent now is the traffic issues ... I'd like to see the Government come back to getting all buses free of charge to all schools so it gives the opportunity to get back on buses."

A family with three children who used the bus to and from school would pay $48 per week using a Smartride card. Four student riders would cost a family $64 per week.

Grainger said costs play a big part in parents' driving habits.

"They think, 'Hell, I'm just gonna get these kids in the car and take 'em to school'."

Commuters throughout town notice dramatic decreases in traffic volumes during school holidays.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council transport committee chairman Stuart Crosby told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend there had been interest in again making travel by students on public and school buses free.

He said the issue had been raised by submitters to the Draft Regional Land Transport Plan and the regional council's Draft Long Term Plan as an immediate solution to traffic congestion.

"Although free school transport was not a key consultation question at the time council released the draft documents, in light of the submissions, it will consider the benefits and costs of doing so prior to the finalisation of both documents."

Larsen, who's also part of the grassroots transport forum, said her group is including a free school bus trial in its proposals to local officials, as well as a trial of free commuter bus service in the suburb.

Advantages and opportunities

Everyone I spoke to for this article was quick to point out positives about Welcome Bay: the large sports ground of Waipuna Park, trails of Johnson Reserve and the small beach at Tye Park, hot pools, tennis courts, four primary schools (one with intermediate), tennis courts, a small shopping centre and beautiful views of the estuary and the Mount.

Despite traffic, Maleta Knight said, "It's a lovely place to live."

Connecting community through schools

It's Wednesday afternoon when I meet Selwyn Ridge principal Craig Price in front of the primary school.

Two young boys dressed in uniform are walking along the footpath. One is crying.

"Do you think you can make it home?," asks Price.

The younger child, who appears to be around 5 years old, sniffs.

"Go ahead, take him home," Price gently tells the older boy.

The principal shows me the sports ground, built around two years ago, which is open for public use. Its courts offer spaces for netball, basketball, cricket, softball, t-ball, hockey and football.

"We have a couple who run free family fitness classes up here, as well."

Price said there were many positives about Welcome Bay, including affordability and family-friendliness.

"But if you're moving here, you've got to be prepared for traffic, depending on where you're working and if your kids are going to school. If they're intermediate or secondary age, they will have to travel to get to those schools."

Selwyn Ridge Principal Craig Price says people need to be prepared for traffic issues before moving to Welcome Bay. Photo/Dawn Picken
Selwyn Ridge Principal Craig Price says people need to be prepared for traffic issues before moving to Welcome Bay. Photo/Dawn Picken

Tauranga's Waldorf School is the only one taking students through Year 8. Principal Mary Tait Jamieson said she'd like to extend the school's roll to secondary years, but is unable to place most inquiries because of a maximum roll cap.

She said its location is well-situated for access to town or the coast.

"It has the best hot pools, incredible real estate options and a diverse community, which is a real advantage."

Welcome Bay School principal Nik House said his school community had experienced challenges with traffic, but he realised it was not an issue exclusive to the suburb, as growth is driving infrastructure changes throughout Tauranga.

"We certainly see challenges that arise from a lack of housing, and also adequate, warm, dry housing. There is a lot of movement with families who have rentals that get sold, and the challenge to find another home in the area."

House said transience impacted the school's roll and had "huge" social implications, too.

The principal of Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Otepou was away on a school outing when we called and was unable to comment for this story before deadline.

Proposed Secondary School

Councillor Bill Grainger has proposed a solution to an exodus of nearly 2000 students from Welcome Bay and Ohauiti each day – a new secondary school.

He backs a combined intermediate and secondary school, though Ministry of Education spokeswoman Katrina Casey said the ministry had no specific plans to build such a school in the area.

Community Centre manager Anna Larsen helps connect residents to events and neighbours in Welcome Bay. Photo/John Borren.
Community Centre manager Anna Larsen helps connect residents to events and neighbours in Welcome Bay. Photo/John Borren.

Casey said the ministry was continually monitoring Tauranga's population growth and school-age population projections.

"We know there is roll growth pressure in the Tauranga secondary schools. However, a whole new secondary school is a major investment, and so we need to get it right."

Welcome Bay and Ohauiti areas sit in enrolment zones for Tauranga Intermediate, Tauranga Boys' College and Tauranga Girls' College.

Larsen said resolving transportation issues would remove some of the impetus for a secondary school, but at the same time, such a school could create greater unity.

"If our kids can stay and continue to grow up in the community, it would create a lot of cohesion," Larsen said a school may be able to incorporate a public library element, dental clinic, plus sports fields and gym facilities.

"It would quite significantly change the community."

Selwyn Ridge Primary's sports turf is open to the public. Photo / Dawn Picken
Selwyn Ridge Primary's sports turf is open to the public. Photo / Dawn Picken

Shopping

Another much-talked-about amenity for Welcome Bay is a supermarket.

Residents can buy essentials at the Four Square, visit the barber, bakery, bookshop, pharmacy, laundromat, Indian restaurant, sports bar and liquor store at the shopping centre, but must travel to Tauranga or Tauriko for major supermarkets.

Despite some speed bumps in siting a supermarket, city councillor Bill Grainger said things were happening.

"There is a possibility that the supermarket could be built on private land ... I'd certainly like to lean towards that as well, rather than build anything on reserve land."

He could not pinpoint a timeline for a decision.

Larsen said a supermarket would be nice to have, but considering the fact the vast majority of community members commute out of the suburb for work, they were already shopping elsewhere.

Maleta Knight agrees.

"Having a supermarket is not a big issue but that's because we've lived rurally before."

Many commenters on the Bay of Plenty Times Facebook page say they want a supermarket, but several are adamant it should not be built on a park or reserve.

Green space

Just steps from the road, stairs lead from the footpath down into Johnson Reserve, which features native bush, streams, wetland areas and open grassy fields.

These green spaces are part of what makes neighbours proud to live in Welcome Bay.

They may not be able to walk to a major supermarket just yet, but they're steps from a nature retreat.

Knight says she and her family make good use of their surroundings.

"We go to the back of Waipuna Park with the dog every weekend. It's a really great park. We love that park."


Welcome Bay Transport Forum Submission

A group of residents have put together proposals for the regional and city councils, aimed at improving traffic flow on Welcome Bay Rd during peak hours. The Welcome Bay Transport Forum group proposes four key elements:

*Giving priority to the 15th Ave and Turret Rd upgrade project
*Trialling a free school bus service in the Welcome Bay area
*Trialling a free commuter bus service in the Welcome Bay area
*Considering implementing a separated cycleway between Welcome Bay and the CBD

The submission includes examples of how traffic has dramatically lengthened commutes.

The forum's document said a school bus trip that used to take 15 minutes in 2013 can take 45 minutes before the bus exits Welcome Bay.

A commuter trip of 8.2km leaving the suburb at 7.30am would take 20 to 30 minutes six months ago, but now commonly takes 60 minutes.

Long-term, the group proposes a second access to Welcome Bay towards the West linking up Waikite, Waitaha, Kaitemako and Ohauiti roads, potentially across to Oropi Rd.

Forum member Maleta Knight said she believed the group was starting to ruffle feathers among local elected officials.

"I think they are aware of the issues … They are listening, it's just that actions are so slow in government."


Find the Welcome Bay Transport Forum here: https://m.facebook.com/groups/916180275207404