Gridlock

Traffic congestion has been identified as our No. 1 priority by Tauranga's mayor – but it's not just about frustrated motorists being late for work or getting home.

Its also impacting on the economy, and a leading housing developer has issued a dire warning for the city: If we don't fix the traffic problem we face a crisis as extreme as the GFC. Kiri Gillespie finds out why.

A top housing developer warns a slow-down in the construction sector similar to that which followed the Global Financial Crisis could soon be on the cards for Tauranga if the city cannot fix its traffic issues.

Classic Builders' Peter Cooney said the stalemate between central and local governments over roading projects could have far-reaching consequences.

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Earlier this year, the council suspended millions of dollars of significant transport and safety projects in protest at a "paralysis" of action from the NZ Transport Agency.

The agency said the city's plan did not align with the Government Policy Statement and focused too much on cars instead of alternative transport.

"It's having a major effect," Cooney said of the stalemate.

"The Government wants affordable housing but is not prepared to spend money on infrastructure, like State Highway 29. That's a main corridor that needs to be upgraded."

He described the situation as "madness".

Classic Builders director Peter Cooney. Photo / Andrew Warner
Classic Builders director Peter Cooney. Photo / Andrew Warner

"At the moment, putting the brakes on most roading projects that were under way, it's just going to compound.

"It's going to come to a crisis in 12 to 15 months. Tauranga is not alone in New Zealand, but Tauranga is going to be the worst hit. It's in the most dire straits of all towns."

Cooney said a slow down in the construction sector would not just affect tradies – it would also impact on lawyers, accountants and bankers.

"The Global Financial Crisis (in 2008) was brutal. If they continue to do this, we will see a similar thing," he said.

"We've been warning of this, and no one has listened to us. We are just pulling our hair out.

"There should have been better planning. SmartGrowth, councils, they're all to blame for lack of infrastructure and lack of accountability."

Classic Builders' Peter Cooney talks about the roading infrastructure that is needed in Tauranga.

He is not alone in his concerns.

Tauranga MP and leader of the National Party Simon Bridges said he worried tradies would "move to Australia because they won't have jobs to do from around the end of this year because nothing's happening".

As former Transport Minister, Bridges headed the Tauranga Northern Link project which had a start date of October 2018. Now, under a Labour-led Government, there was no start date for the project.

Bridges said it took many years to get a project such as the northern link ready for construction and now there were no new transport projects in Tauranga.

"It's very frustrating because it will mean the future of Tauranga is halted.

"Unless we build those these greater projects on the outskirts of the city, we are just not able to build the houses that we need for our population," Bridges said.

Tauranga MP and leader of the National Party Simon Bridges. Photo / File
Tauranga MP and leader of the National Party Simon Bridges. Photo / File

Western Bay of Plenty Mayor Garry Webber said the district was "critically affected".

"We have built an incredible number of houses, but central Government hasn't delivered that transport network to enable the people who have shifted into these homes to get to and from work, or schools, etc."

Webber was also frustrated, saying on a scale of one to 10 – with one being good and 10 being terrible – "we were terrible 10 years ago".

"It's just off the scale," he said.

"We are at our wit's end trying to be diplomatic and constructive and doing whatever we can do to meet these requirements ... yet they are not doing anything at all to assist us."

The issue stemmed back beyond the past 18 months, to the former Government, he said.

Western Bay of Plenty Mayor Garry Webber on State Highway 2. Photo / File
Western Bay of Plenty Mayor Garry Webber on State Highway 2. Photo / File

Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless was equally concerned.

"The next step for housing is to get transport right, but we can't put in houses and rely on the Government to put the roading in when we are not sure that will happen."

Brownless referred to the proposed Tauriko West development, "but have you seen the state highway?"

"I'm hearing of queues as far back as the Ruahihi Power Station. If you put 3000 houses at Tauriko, what's that going to do to that?"

Brownless doubted such a housing plan would be even successful in resource consent because of this.

The mayor echoed Cooney's and Bridges' concerns the trade and housing sectors would start moving.

"I'm worried. We do have tradespeople here and people who can build roads. All that's missing is action on the part of the Government to approve that roading and progress forthwith. The only way for it to get better is for us to have these conversations with the Government."

Brownless said he and other city leaders had repeatedly lobbied the Government for more support, and he was hopeful.

"We think we've done our bit."

Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless. Photo / File
Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless. Photo / File

Priority One chief executive Nigel Tutt said while traffic was having an impact on development "the effects are much wider than just housing".

"Transport congestion is the No. 1 issue for businesses in the Western Bay."

In response to these concerns, Transport Minister Phil Twyford said the Government increased funding for NZ Transport Agency to build new roads and he has instructed its board it would work closely with local councils.

Despite this, in February the transport agency refused to present a Tauranga transport plan for consideration because it focused too much on providing for cars.

"Transport congestion is the No. 1 issue for businesses in the Western Bay."

Twyford said it was essential councils in high growth areas such as the Bay of Plenty join their transport and housing plans "and our Government is committed to working with them to achieve this".

"If you don't … the result is what happened under the former National government with high suburban growth around Omokoroa and stress on SH2. Our Government is now addressing this through a package of safety improvements and increased capacity."

Twyford said the Government had not cancelled the Tauranga Northern Link project but was re-evaluating it.

The Government had made $158m of 10-year interest-free loans available for Tauranga to support infrastructure projects through the Housing Infrastructure Fund. The money would support new housing through upgrades to the local water systems, provide water and wastewater capacity for an additional 35,000 houses, which could be either infill or greenfield development.

Four-laning pledge not fulfilled

National Party leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges is concerned the future of the city will be halted because of a lack in transport infrastructure. Photo / File
National Party leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges is concerned the future of the city will be halted because of a lack in transport infrastructure. Photo / File

In 2008, the year Simon Bridges became Tauranga MP, he and his party promised to fully fund the four-laning of 15th Ave and Turret Rd, including a new bridge.

When asked what happened, Bridges said other projects such as the Tauranga Northern Link, Tauranga Eastern Link and Maungatapu Underpass took priority.

The widening of Turret Rd was expected to have come as an extension of the Maungatapu Underpass, Bridges said.

"It's not that it shouldn't happen; it should happen. You take those other three projects, that's over $1 billion worth of roading."

The underpass was now "practically complete".

Read here to see what the head of the Western Bay's economic development agency has to say in a special guest editorial.
Read here to find out what impact traffic congestion is having on the Bay's economy

Tomorrow, we reveal the intersections Tauranga motorists love to hate.