The Government is pumping $933 million into roading in the Western Bay of Plenty and the long-awaited Tauranga Northern Link has finally been given the green light.
Yesterday, Minister of Transport Phil Twyford announced funding for the four-lane link, plus upgrades on State Highway 2 from Te Puna to Ōmokoroa, which would "improve safety on a dangerous stretch of highway" as well as unlock more housing developments.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the whole Waikato/Bay of Plenty infrastructure package would cost around $991m, with $933m of that going to two major Bay of Plenty-based projects.
The Tauranga Northern Link would get $478m and taking five years to complete and $455m was set aside for the SH2 upgrades.
Labour List MPs based in Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty, Jan Tinetti and Angie Warren-Clark, and MP for Waiariki, Tāmati Coffey, said they were "celebrating" the decision to "future-proof" the roads.
"We've walked the talk," they said in a statement.
"We are making real progress on sorting out the long-term problems of Tauranga's transport network and making our roads safer for families."
Tauranga MP and Opposition leader Simon Bridges, however, said National had "embarrassed Labour into this", two-and-a-half years into the coalition Government's term.
"The tragedy is they don't believe in this road and won't deliver it."
Bridges said that under the last National government, the Tauranga Northern Link had been in commercial tender in the middle of 2018 and ready for construction to begin by October 2018 but "Labour killed it".
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"Now it's not [ready] for building for years again."
"They've been embarrassed into this by National and locals like the Fix the Bloody Road campaigners."
The Fix the Bloody Road group was formed by concerned residents to lobby the Government - including via protests and a petition - for better safety upgrades for the stretch of SH2 between Tauranga and Katikati.
"It should not have had to come to that to get this announcement because it's wasted not just two-and-a-half years of this time but years of getting back to starting the building again," Bridges said.
Fix the Bloody Road's Andrew Hollis said it was great news that the Tauranga Northern Link had been given the go-ahead.
"We weren't expecting it at all," he said.
"As far as the region is concerned, it opens up housing, it stops congestion that side of town and it makes the road safer. It is everything we hoped for."
Katikati had been ignored in the announcement, he said, but the rest was was "small blessings".
Hollis said the funding for meant a lot for the community.
"It could save lives and time."
Transport Minister Phil Twyford said the Government never ruled out the Tauranga Northern Link but rather, took it away and re-evaluated it.
He said Bridges' comments staking claim for the project were "sad and pathetic".
"They've allowed suburban expansion alongside SH2 without the proper transport infrastructure ... they didn't rebuild the road. We are."
The new link road would be better value for money than what was originally planned and will be flanked by walkways and cycleways, he said.
The road was also expected to also have a dedicated lane for freight, public transport and high occupancy vehicles.
"That is the intention.
"You've got to give people different options," he said.
"If you don't, you are condemned to a future of gridlock."
Asked 'why now?', Twyford said the projects were able to be brought forward due to a "rebalancing" of transport projects nationally including railway investments.
Twyford said he developed a constructive relationship with Western Bay of Plenty mayor Garry Webber and Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell.
He said the commitment to the two highway projects was part of a bigger plan for the next 30 years to ensure sustainable growth of the region that involved local and central Government.
Webber said the projects were a "victory" for the Western Bay.
He had been part of envoys to Wellington with local leaders in recent years to fight for funding for the Tauranga to Katikati stretch of SH2.
He was pleased with the results and commended council staff who had also helped make it happen.
"It's a victory for sticking to the hard evidence and persisting with diplomacy," he said.
"This is incredible."
The first part of the northern link is expected to be completed by 2025.
The second part, which would involve four-laning from the end of the link to the Ōmokoroa interchange should be completed by 2027, Webber said.
Powell said he, Webber and Bay of Plenty Regional Council chairman Doug Leeder had worked with a shared vision of infrastructure that had "paid off".
He also welcomed the funding nod to State Highway 29, which he believed would become the future main northern gateway to Tauranga.
"The reality is we are never going to straighten out the Karangahake Gorge."
Powell said calling SH29 the major northern route into to Tauranga would enable Tauriko West to be opened up as well.
"This is going to be of critical importance for residential housing and heavy transport."
Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns said given the volume of New Zealand exports that go out through the port it was important to have high-quality road and rail links.
''We have a pretty good rail link and it's great to see the Northern Link is getting a good chunk of money.''
Cairns had not had chance to look at the full details of the package but he paid credit to the local mayors and chairs who had worked together to come up with a regional package to get the roading sorted.
Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Matt Cowley said the Tauranga Northern Link was "long overdue".
"It's been needed for a couple of years, I'd say it's more a sense of relief than celebration," he said.
"The future, however, needs to be focused on State Highway 29 [and] our connection between Hamilton and Tauranga ... I'd like to see some long-term thinking around improving that route."
Lyall Thurston, chairman of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council's regional transport committee, agreed the link was overdue.
"It's a wonderful step forward," he said.
It was a tribute to previous Western Bay of Plenty leaders for "the pressure brought to bear on the Government", he said.
Bay of Plenty regional manager for the Sustainable Business Network, Glen Crowther, said it was important to make sure there is a "good connection" between Ōmokoroa and Tauranga.
"The big issue is perhaps focussing on how we want Tauranga to develop in decades to come," he said.
He called for Tauranga's urban sprawl and congestion to be addressed.
"Stop the sprawl, have better quality urban development, get more people on to public transport and other modes of public transport," he said.
He was surprised that a cycle path was being included with the link, "because they've just funded the Ōmokoroa to Tauranga cycleway," he said.
He was also concerned that both the Tauranga Northern Link cycleway and the Ōmokoroa-Tauranga cycleway had been funded, but not the Tauranga Cycle Plan, "which would build safe cycleways for thousands of Tauranga children and commuters," he said.
He said if the council wanted to see people using public transport along the route they would need to incentivize it.
Chair of the AA's Bay of Plenty district council Stacey Spall said Tauranga "desperately needs" it's highway network to keep pace, as one of the fastest-growing regions.
"It's great news that the Government is responding to that," she said.
SH2 was one of the most dangerous stretched of road in the country, she said.
"What we see around the country is that once a new, high-quality highway is built, the number of accidents drops right down. If the Government is going to deliver on its own road safety goals, this sort of investment is vital."
- Additional reporting Zoe Hunter
Tauranga Northern Link project timeline
New 6.8km four-lane corridor from Takitimu Drive (SH29) to SH2 near Loop Rd, west of Te Puna, including overbridge interchange at Minden Rd, new Wairoa River bridge crossing, underpasses at Cambridge Rd and Wairoa Rd, new westbound single lane connection from 15th Ave to Takitimu Dr toll Rd, separated pedestrian/cycling facility.
- Mid 2020: Construction contract tendered
- Late 2020: Construction contract awarded
- Late 2020: Construction starts
- Late 2025: Construction completed.
Source: New Zealand Transport Agency