Five years after plans for a cycleway stretching from Ōmokoroa to Tauranga were approved, concerns about the safety of its final section have stymied the popular trail's completion. Local landowners threaten to take the matter to court while cyclists say hundreds of thousands of dollars are at risk. Meanwhile, the cycleway's progress remains in limbo. Kiri Gillespie investigates.
A Tauranga kaumatua says iwi are prepared to go to court if the final section of a $14 million cycleway - five years in the making - goes ahead as planned.
And it appears he has the backing of local mayors.
Ngāti Kahu kaumatua Lou Te Keeti said local Māori "strongly oppose" plans for the Ōmokoroa to Tauranga Cycleway to run past properties, including Wairoa Marae, on State Highway 2 near Wairoa Bridge.
The 19km trail currently runs from Ōmokoroa harbour to the bridge, and is expected to connect to Tauranga's city network at Carmichael Rd. Ultimately, the cycleway is hoped to become a major link in a trail running from Waihī to Maketū, and eventually Rotorua.
The Ōmokoroa to Tauranga Cycleway plans were approved in 2015 and sections of the cycleway have gradually opened since. However, the final 800m part of the project on SH2 remains untouched as Western Bay of Plenty District Council, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, Tauranga City Council and local hapū continue consultation.
The final section - a 3m wide concrete path on NZTA land running past Wairoa Marae - was expected to cost $1.5m to $1.8m and complete the cycleway.
The section has been described as "critical" by those involved in the project but "too dangerous" by others.
Ngāti Kahu, of Ngāti Ranginui iwi, is the primary hapū affiliated with Wairoa Marae.
Ngāti Kahu spokesman Te Keeti, who shot to fame after winning $10m in Lotto in 2017, said access to the meeting house and neighbouring properties clashed with the planned cycleway, creating significant safety concerns.
Western Bay council has been in consultation with landowners in the area since 2017.
However, Te Keeti said the council's decisions in this time were "always pre-determined" and it should have considered alternative options.
Running the cycleway up Taniwha Place instead of alongside SH2 made "good sense, from our perspective" and was the hapū's preferred option, he said.
In 2017, the council scrapped plans for a new bridge across Wairoa River, and a $4.1m cycling attachment to the existing Wairoa Bridge was approved instead.
Te Keeti said the proximity of the proposed cycleway section to the marae and its people made this situation different from other cycleways running past properties in other parts of the city.
"That's our marae, the last bastion, and anything that impacts that right there - it's something the [Resource Management] Act protects us from."
Te Keeti said the hapū was prepared for litigation if need be.
"I think the council have an opportunity to seek a remedy that we can support. If it doesn't, if they are going to proceed, I'd just like to caution them and others we will be using the full strength of the law in response."
Western Bay mayor Garry Webber said running the cycleway under Wairoa Bridge into Taniwha Place and the city was a far safer option and was being seriously considered.
When asked what had changed, Webber said the council was "victims of our own success" and the rapid rise in cyclist numbers, particularly e-bike users and the speed they travelled at, had become an important factor.
"The volumes are quite significant and from Ōmokoroa to Wairoa Bridge it's mainly off the state highway. But as we get closer to Tauranga, there is a great concern about public safety.
"The world has changed. We just need to accept that cycleways and walkways are becoming quite significant ... the closer you put them to 80 and 90km/h zones the higher the danger is ... Safety of the public is an absolute priority.
"What looked like a good idea has got problems."
Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell said Ngāti Kahu presented some "very good points about the dangers of that road".
"It's [near] an 80km/h zone and people are pulling out doing a right-hand turn in front of heavy traffic.
"That makes it very dangerous."
Powell said the level of collaboration with Ngāti Kahu was important as it brought "much greater depth and understanding to the issue".
Bike Tauranga's Kevin Kerr said completion of the cycleway was crucial and he struggled to understand why it still had not been completed five years later.
"If it can't be resolved, it puts at risk hundreds of thousands of dollars of the tourist route that would ultimately connect Ōmokoroa to Paengaroa and Rotorua," Kerr said.
"Without it, we can't move forward. That would be hugely, hugely disappointing."
Kerr said the group had been in talks with Tourism Bay of Plenty about the cycleway, which would be the first significant tourist cycle route for the area.
Western Bay council deputy chief executive and group manager of infrastructure services Gary Allis
said the SH2 section of cycleway had always been part of the overall design and project but last year, landowners raised the safety concerns.
"It's important that all our key stakeholders are comfortable with the design of the final section before we proceed to construction which is why we are working with the hapū and project partners to find a solution," Allis said.
Allis confirmed that project partners met with the hapū last week, after Bay of Plenty Times inquiries were made, and agreed to investigate an alternative route.
Covid-19 contributed to consultation delays that, while ongoing, meant there was no completion date yet, he said.
The cycleway's original budget was $13.4m, co-funded between the Western Bay council, city council, transport agency, TECT donations and the New Zealand Community Trust. The final cost is now believed to be $14.08m which included $300,000 in Covid-19 related costs.
"The cycleway is a critical piece in the Western Bay of Plenty sub-region's vision to provide a network of connected cycle trails across the entire region. This network will ultimately link with the neighbouring districts of Hauraki and Rotorua."
Allis said awareness of the cycleway had spread and it had now become a destination ride or walk.
In the past year, more than 95,000 cyclists have used the trail.
Transport agency Bay of Plenty system manager Rob Campbell confirmed the organisation owned the land adjacent to SH2 "and is working with council and landowners on plans for the final section".
"We are committed to ensuring all project partners and stakeholders are supportive of the final design before it progresses to construction."
Tauranga City Council general manager for infrastructure Nic Johansson said the cycleway section was under review and the council was working with partners "to see if we can help conclude it".
The route is made up of 25 sections of new and existing off-road shared paths and local road connections.