As the Government looks to kickstart the economy by fast-tracking 'shovel-ready' projects, Waikato's regional economic development agency Te Waka is pushing for that investment to be focused on seven key connecting infrastructure projects across the Waikato.

The projects include completing the Piarere Extension of the Waikato Expressway, upgrading the planned Hamilton to Auckland train link to higher-speed, dual-mode tilting trains, and accelerating Tainui's Ruakura Inland Port project in Hamilton to build on the region's natural location as a primary logistics and distribution hub.

Other projects are completing the Southern Links project in Hamilton and investing in improvements to State Highway 2 to open up the Coromandel

Te Waka CEO Michael Bassett-Foss says new appetite from Government to invest in infrastructure, along with encouragement for bold thinking on productivity, connectivity and sustainability, presents the Waikato with a unique window of opportunity.

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The Hamilton section will join the Waikato Expressway at the Northern Interchange at Lake Road and in the south at Tamahere, but at the moment go only to Cambridge. Photo / NZTA
The Hamilton section will join the Waikato Expressway at the Northern Interchange at Lake Road and in the south at Tamahere, but at the moment go only to Cambridge. Photo / NZTA

"There is no denying that the impact of Covid-19 is severe. Economic activity has stalled. There is strong debate about the sustainability of businesses and sectors. There are growing concerns about the wellbeing of people and communities as unemployment rises," he says.

"But despite this, the crisis also has the potential to unleash a wave of innovation, new-thinking and disruptive business models.

"The Waikato region has the industries and talent to embrace this change and to lead economic recovery by creating employment and growth.

"In order to do so we need to create connections between our communities and to complete key connecting infrastructure projects," he says.

A statement from Te Waka says the Waikato encompasses some of the most productive parts of New Zealand.

Key industries include a world-class agricultural base, a strong food manufacturing cluster, scalable high-tech manufacturing and technology industries, growing construction and light manufacturing clusters and unique tourism experiences.

This combines with a history of innovation, a quality and growing skills base and world-class educational facilities.

But despite this strong foundation and the Waikato's location at the heart of a golden economic triangle, Mr Bassett-Foss believes the region is not well connected with the population centres of Auckland and Tauranga, nor is it well connected internally.

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Strong economic and wellbeing outcomes are linked to connecting the growing towns and population centres from Coromandel in the north through Morrinsville, Matamata and Cambridge in the east and then south via Ōtorohanga, Te Kuiti, Putaruru and Tokoroa towards Taupō.

"These connections are critical if we want to create growth, employment, community prosperity and wellbeing, and to leverage our natural strengths as a region," Mr Bassett-Foss says.

"The new normal will look quite different, and now is the time for us to come together as a connected region and leverage a unified vision which underpins a healthy and thriving future for Waikato communities."

The Hamilton to Auckland Te Huia commuter train is due to start running later this year. Photo / Supplied
The Hamilton to Auckland Te Huia commuter train is due to start running later this year. Photo / Supplied

Te Waka believes the road to recovery must start by connecting major employment and population centres, including central business districts, growing metropolitan and employment areas, rural and coastal towns and adjacent regions.

The agency's seven infrastructure priorities and the reasons Te Waka sees them as key to receive Government funding are:

1. Finish the Waikato Expressway by completing the Piarere Extension
The Waikato Expressway will transform the relationship between Hamilton and Auckland and enhance opportunity for northern communities. But completion of the northern corridor does not fulfil the region's potential without completing links towards South Waikato and Tauranga. The number one priority must be to complete the 16km Cambridge to Piarere extension. This allows the Expressway to terminate in a more logical place, where vehicles destined for Tauranga can turn off SH1 to make their way to the Kaimai Range on SH29. The completion of the Piarere – Kaimai Extension is also important to connect trade, commuter and visitor flows within and beyond the region.

While not shovel ready, this is a vital project where Government commitment will enable industry to allocate resource and ensure the necessary preparatory design, designation and land acquisition work to be fast tracked. A more innovative approach to commercial and strategic partnerships may also need to be considered, as will the availability or re-deployment of constructor resource.

 The Hamilton-Auckland Corridor initiative Hei Awarua ki te Oranga stretches from Papakura in the north to Cambridge and Te Awamutu in the south. Image / Hamilton City Council
The Hamilton-Auckland Corridor initiative Hei Awarua ki te Oranga stretches from Papakura in the north to Cambridge and Te Awamutu in the south. Image / Hamilton City Council

2. Accelerate the Hamilton to Auckland Corridor project

The Hamilton-Auckland Corridor (H2A) project enables the significant and fast-growing harbour-river, rail and road corridor between Papakura and Cambridge / Te Awamutu. The H2A partnership sets a new model for cross-regional co-operation between iwi and central / local govt and will address longer-term goals of improved wellbeing for current and future populations and increased environmental protection. Within the project Te Waka sees the key priorities as addressing housing affordability issues and delivering a shift to public transport options.

3. Enable rapid rail – Hamilton to Auckland

Enabling the Hamilton to Auckland corridor via rail is key to unlocking opportunities through the Northern Waikato. Te Waka recommends accelerating the business case for Stage 2, with a focus on investment into higher-speed, dual-mode tilting trains and necessary track upgrades to maximise utilisation of the existing upper North Island rail network for intercity passenger services.

The Southern Links would connect the Peacocke growth area in the south to the rest of Hamilton, including a new bridge over the Waikato River. Image / Hamilton City Council
The Southern Links would connect the Peacocke growth area in the south to the rest of Hamilton, including a new bridge over the Waikato River. Image / Hamilton City Council

4. Complete the Southern Links project

Completing the Southern Links project is crucial. It will enable development of the industrial/employment land to the west of Hamilton near the airport and will also unlock a range of housing offerings in the Peacocke area - including much needed affordable housing. It will also relieve pressure on the Tamahere connection into Hamilton and will complete the Western connection. The project also provides a range of multi modal transport solutions including walking, cycling and public transport options. Building on this southern connectivity, attention must also be directed at additional projects that improve SH 3 flow south towards Te Kuiti and on towards Mokau and New Plymouth.

5. Invest in improvements to State Highway 2 to open up the Coromandel

SH2 is one of the most congested and dangerous sections of road in the country. Significantly improving these roads – in particular the four-lane project through Maramarua - has the potential to unlock a sea change of business and housing investment across the Coromandel Peninsula, which currently conceals some of the largest social inequalities in New Zealand.

An artist's impression of the Tainui Group Holdings development at Ruakura, near Hamilton Image / Supplied
An artist's impression of the Tainui Group Holdings development at Ruakura, near Hamilton Image / Supplied

6. Enable a regional logistics strategy via connecting the Ruakura Inland Port

This project should be accelerated. Building on the region's natural location as a primary logistics and distribution hub for New Zealand is essential. The Ruakura Inland Port project can play a vital role in enabling the region's growth and will realise the benefits of solid connecting infrastructure and existing freight locations. The surrounding industrial area will generate significant employment once complete having a significant social and economic impact on the region.

7. Put technology and business infrastructure in place

Economic recovery will require a distributed and connected workforce. Accelerating fibre and 5G rollout to the region is vital to drive innovation and enable a smart and agile population and more resilient communities. Likewise, the move more towards a smart economy will require a resilient energy distribution network. Planning for industrial development needs to be supported by spatial planning of other infrastructure across the region, including main electricity transmission lines and substations in locations such as Hautapu near Cambridge and gasification of Waharoa.