The Bay of Plenty Times has launched Gridlock – Tauranga's No. 1 issue, a series examining what's gone wrong, the choke points and the impact on people, businesses and the wider city.
Today we talk to city and business leaders about the impact traffic congestion is having on the Bay's economy – with one saying there will be dire consequences if authorities don't tackle the problem soon.
Geoff Seavill spends $1000 a month on road tolls so the truck drivers he employs can avoid Tauranga's worst choke points.
Seavill says the expense is worth it to minimise the impact of Tauranga's clogged roads on his business, Tauranga Freight Services.
Traffic in Tauranga had become "crazy" since he took over the business three years ago.
Jobs that would have taken a couple of hours to complete then, now take much of the day.
If a truck was heading to Maleme St, drivers used Fraser St to avoid Cameron Rd because Greerton was "totally stuffed up".
The Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) shares Seavill's concerns.
Chief executive Brett O'Reilly said Tauranga now rivalled Auckland for the title of having the nation's worst traffic woes, and if things didn't change, there could be dire economic consequences for the city.
Association members were significantly concerned about the impact traffic congestion was having on business and future investment decisions, he said.
Gridlock: We need answers and action now, says Mayor Greg Brownless
Gridlock: Tauranga's traffic problem escalates, dramatic new figures show
Gridlock: Tauranga's congested roads affecting families
Data released by Infometrics showed traffic flow into and around the city had grown 5.2 per cent over the past year.
The EMA believes Tauranga needs a version of the Auckland Transport Alignment Plan, which integrates transport priorities with land use priorities – such as commercial and residential development – and considers multiple transport modes.
"This is essential infrastructure. Businesses have to be confident that they can move around, move goods efficiently and effectively, and move people around the region," O'Reilly said.
O'Reilly, who has met with Minister of Transport Phil Twyford, city leaders and developers, said "dysfunction and lack of integration of traffic" had a significant impact on business growth and production.
Tauranga was a crucial part of New Zealand's Golden Triangle with Hamilton and Auckland, but traffic woes had prompted uncertainty among Auckland investors and businesses looking to relocate, he said.
"How do businesses invest if there's no plan? The answer is they don't."
O'Reilly said traffic congestion could also be damaging Tauranga's reputation as a lifestyle destination for skilled workers.
"People don't want to come and live in a place where it's difficult to move around. House rentals are more expensive than Auckland , but incomes aren't as high as Auckland. It's a bit of a double whammy; you move down, earn less money but pay top dollar."
One of O'Reilly's staff spent an hour one-way each day travelling from Pāpāmoa to the Tauranga CBD for work. The commute was longer than it took O'Reilly to go from Auckland's North Shore into the city's CBD.
"So who has the traffic problem, Auckland or Tauranga?
"At least here (in Auckland) there are multi-modal options."
Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless did not agree the city's traffic issues were worse than Auckland's but said they soon would be "if we can't get anything done".
Brownless and other city leaders have pleaded for action from the Government. In March, Tauranga City Council stopped awarding contracts for transportation and safety upgrades to prompt action from NZ Transport Agency – the lead agency on several roading projects in the region. It came after the agency refused to consider the city's transport plan because the agency said it focussed too much on cars.
Minister Twyford agreed congestion in Tauranga was "worse than ever" but disputed the Government's objectives for more transport options was coming at the expense of people and businesses using cars.
"By rebalancing transport investment and giving people real transport choices, we will help free up the roads for those that have to drive," he said.
"Whether it's roads or public transport in the cities, freight moving by truck or rail, we want the most efficient and sustainable option."
Twyford said a proposed Tauranga Transport Alignment Project was heartening and encouraged councils to put plans in the project "into their regional land transport plan to be evaluated and progressed".
Priority One chief executive Nigel Tutt said authorities should expect the business community to hold them to account. He said congestion was of "particular concern" and was the number one issue for businesses.
"Businesses are alarmed at the lack of investment in transport infrastructure and the flow on cost that this is causing them ... Given that little has been achieved so far, they expect urgent action."
However, Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stan Gregec said while congestion was a severe problem, it was more of an "irritant" for businesses. He was yet to see evidence of companies and investors being seriously turned off relocating.
"The business case for opening or relocating a business in Tauranga still looks pretty compelling to me – despite the traffic," he said.
Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns said anyone who uses Hewletts Rd or Totara St in Mount Maunganui during the morning and afternoon peaks "will see there is massively increasing congestion".
He put that down to population growth in the area and said the number of trucks coming in and out of the Port had remained the same for about the past three years.
All of the Port's growth has been via rail and sea, he said.
"We're lucky that more than half of our cargo comes in on rail."
Cairns said, in his opinion, Totara St should be a state highway.
"And that's something that we are taking up jointly with NZTA."
He said the central Government is paid taxes to fund roads.
"I think there's certainly an anomaly that we don't have a state highway connection to the Mount side of the Port.
"At the moment we've only got a state highway connection to the one side of the Port, through Sulphur Point ... Totara St shouldn't be a local road; it should be funded by central Government, it should be a state highway."
Brownless said he agreed with that, but he had some conditions.
"Only if the connection at Hewletts Rd is guaranteed to be seriously and immediately improved as part of the change to a state highway.
"I'd also want to know how quickly Totara St would be improved and what actual changes would be made."
As politicians search for answers to the Tauranga's traffic woes, Geoff Seavill will continue listening to daily traffic reports on the radio each morning.
Being able to get from place to place promptly is his livelihood. And it's something he's had to continually tweak and manage in response to the city's increased traffic congestion.
"I don't go near Te Puna before 10am if I need to get back into town," he said.
Seavill's trucks also avoid State Highway 29 if returning from Auckland in the afternoons, purely to avoid the congestion.
"We've been backed up to the [Ruahihi] power station trying to get through. Now we go the other way, and probably add to the traffic problems there, unfortunately."
And if the trucks are needed in Auckland that day, drivers are up at 3.30am.
He is looking forward to the completion of the Baypark to Bayfair project but was unsure how that would help the "sheer number of vehicles" on Hewletts Rd.
"Bayfair should improve things, hopefully.
"From my point of view, there's not a lot we can do about it. We plan around it; that's about all we can do."
Urban Form and Transport Initiative
Three former NZ Transport Agency employees have been appointed to lead an initiative aiming to get transport and housing planning in the Western Bay back on track.
BECA consultant Robert Brodnax has been appointed project director for the new Urban Form and Transport Initiative (UFTI).
Also appointed to the team were Brodnax's former agency colleague Janeane Joyce as project manager and consultant Ben Peacey as technical advisor.
The initiative includes the Tauranga City, Western Bay District and Bay of Plenty Regional councils, Smartgrowth – itself a collaboration of those councils and local iwi – and the transport agency.
It was formed after an acknowledgement from local leaders that the sub-region had fallen behind in planning for transport and housing.
Relationships with the central Government had broken down, especially in response to the new Government's priorities.
The new initiative has a broad brief to develop a coordinated approach across the area for housing, transport and urban development planning.
Read here to discover why a developer believes traffic congestion could have a major impact on housing.
Read here to see what the head of the Western Bay's economic development agency has to say in a special guest editorial.
Tomorrow, we reveal the intersections motorists complain the most about.