It's summer, and that means packing the car and getting stuck in holiday traffic on route to the bach and beach. To help plan the trip, transport reporter Bernard Orsman updates progress on some of our biggest motorway projects.
Two more years. That's how long motorists have to put up with the narrow, windy and dangerous stretch of road that passes for a main highway between Puhoi and Warkworth.
By the summer of 2021, the drive north will be smoother and safer when the new $710m four-lane highway is extended from the Johnstones Hill Tunnel to just past Warkworth.
But having added another new leg to the drive north started under National, that's it under the Labour-led Government, which has all but abandoned big motorway projects in favour of a big safety improvement programme to reduce the number of road deaths and serious injuries.
Unless, of course, some of the $6.8 billion Finance Minister Grant Robertson has dangled before voters in election year for transport projects goes to extending the highway from Warkworth to Wellsford.
There's also the possibility of the Government going ahead and moving Auckland's port to Marsden Pt, which could bring forward a four-lane highway from Auckland to Whangarei.
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Automobile Association spokesman Barney Irvine laments politics getting in the way of SH1 north, saying it never leads to a good result.
Irvine said the AA is keen to see more four-laning of the highway north, saying a staged approach was best, probably starting in the north and working down.
"After all, this is Northland's economic lifeline – but like any project, it has to stack up. It has to make sense from a safety and transport perspective, and it has to be affordable.
The 'Killing Fields' of Dome Valley to be made safer
"We were really disappointed to see the Whangarei-Port Marsden highway held back, and the sooner we can make a start on it, the better," Irvine said.
For now, the only work under way immediately north of Warkworth is $35m of safety improvements along the dangerous stretch of road through Dome Valley.
Every region has its black spots with scalloped skid marks, dotted with white crosses. Just north of Warkworth, up a narrow windy hill, it's Dome Valley, known as the "Killing Fields". Since 2000 it has claimed 36 lives and left 102 people with serious injuries.
Last Christmas, Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter held a media conference at Dome Valley to announce flexible median and side barriers will be installed to prevent head-on crashes and avoid hitting something hard like a pole, tree or ditch. The road shoulders will be widened and intersections improved.
Since then, road widening and retaining walls have been constructed at the southern entrance to Dome Valley. Road widening has allowed for a right-turn bay into Sheepworld and turnarounds at Sheepworld and Christine Place, and road side and centre median barriers will be completed by mid 2020.
The second section of the safety project, south of Wayby Valley Rd, got under way in September with a widened centreline, flexible centre safety barriers and roadside barrier improvements, due for completion in 2020.
The remaining safety improvements will get under way in stages from March next year with the project due for completion in late 2021.
Ian Davis, chief fire officer with the Warkworth Volunteer Fire Brigade, has attended crashes in Dome Valley for 30 years. He supported the safety improvements, but would like to see a new four-lane highway built along a new route from Warkworth to Wellsford that bypasses Dome Valley.
Genter said the highway will cost $1.6b to deliver 25km of safe road. For that money, the Government will make 870km of safety improvements to highways, and a similar length of local roads.
In October, NZTA put out a proposal to reduce speeds on SH1 from Puhoi to just south of Warkworth and from Sheepworld to Kaipara Flats Rd near the Dome Summit from 100km/h to 80km/h, saying the State Highway contains "tight and difficult" corners and has "very narrow shoulders and poor visibility".
In 2017, NZTA produced an indicative route for the Warkworth to Wellsford leg, passing west of Wellsford, crossing SH1 just south of Wellsford, then passing east of Wellsford and Te Hana before rejoining SH1 north of Mangawhai Rd.
The straighter road was expected to reduce deaths and serious injuries by 80 per cent, and won the backing of the National Road Carriers and Northland leaders, who view SH1 as the region's economic lifeline.
The project is in the investigation phase with the lodging of designation and consents planned for mid 2020. NZTA is taking steps to protect land required for the new highway, but construction remains at least 10 years away.
National had committed to building a highly engineered, four-lane highway from Auckland to Whangarei in stages, saying most people in Northland saw this as the single most important issue for the economic development of the region.
In December, National included a highway from Whangarei to Warkworth on a list of routes for upgrading to four lanes for feedback before it commits to a new highway building programme at this year's elections.
In December 2016, Prime Minister John Key kicked off the new 18.5km Puhoi to Warkworth leg, declaring it "part of a long term strategy of getting up to Whangarei".
It was part of National's "Roads of National Significance" programme at a cost of $710m.
Since turning the first sod in a paddock outside Warkworth, the highway, officially named Ara Tuhono, has progressed well from the Johnstones Hill Tunnels just south of Puhoi to just south of the Kaipara Flat Rd, north of Warkworth.
For the past three summers, major earthworks have been undertaken in a public private partnership (PPP) between NZTA and the Northern Express Group joint venture between Fletchers and Spanish construction firm Acciona, known as NX2.
During the first earthworks in the 2018-2019 summer, 1m cu m of material was moved by the group. Last summer it was about 3.7m cu m of rock and soil. The project's third and final earthworks got under way on October 1, 2019.
Project director Robert Jones said there were three goals this summer - moving the final 3m cu m of earth, get to the point where seven bridges along the route can be crossed and begin surfacing the road with a low noise, porous asphalt surface, which allows water to escape and avoids wheel spray. This work will take 12 months.
In total, 7m c m of fill is expected to be dug, of which 5m cu m will be used as fill. Seven new bridges will be built and there will be a significant planning programme of native vegetation to replace 162ha of felling, much of that pine trees.
So far there have been more than 70 rocks blasts and about 65 per cent of the culvert pipes have been installed and 40 per cent of steel structures completed.
Under the PPP, NX2 will finance, design, construct and manage and maintain the new stretch of SH1 for 25 years after it is completed, expected to be in late 2021.
Jones said the new road will be a spectacular drive featuring natural forms, a kauri reserve, looking down from a bridge at the Puhoi River, 50m-high cuts slopes with layers of rock forms breaking out the valley floors - all following a relatively flat and curved pathway.
This summer, he said, motorists will come through the tunnel and see the bridge structures with beams on and as they move north a lot of earthworks. At the northern end, outside Warkworth, where the highway ties in with a new roundabout at SH1, motorists will see construction works but there are no plans to disrupt traffic during the holidays.
It will be dramatic, said Steve Mutton, who is managing the Kaikoura earthquake work for the NZ Transport Agency while looking after projects in Auckland and Northland.
The new road, derided by critics as a "holiday highway" for Aucklanders driving to their beach homes at Omaha, is seen by others as improving better and safer access through Warkworth and further north.
Warkworth Business Association boss Mark Mackey said the new highway to Warkworth will bring huge benefits to the town and surrounding area, which is forecast to grow from a population of 4500 to more than 25,000 over the next 25 years.
It will benefit businesses and people looking to move to Warkworth, where the price of new homes start at $700,000. It will shave about 10 minutes off the drive between Warkworth and Auckland where the current drive takes 35 minutes to one hour, depending on traffic, he said.
Warkworth resident Kit Johnston said the new highway will make a massive difference, being a lot safer, cut out sections of windy road and allow traffic to travel at 100km/h.
With the highway extending just north of Warkworth, Johnston said it would also see an end to an average wait of five to 10 minutes getting out of his local street in the township. On one occasion he waited 43 minutes to get out of Shoesmith St.
Separate to the highway project, Auckland Transport is tackling Warkworth's notorious Hill St intersection by building a new four-lane Matakana Link Rd. This replaces an earlier plan to do it in two stages with two lanes at the outset and four lanes as traffic demand grows.
AT has approved design, land purchase and construction of the 1.35km link between SH1 and Matakana Road.
The road is due for completion about the same time as the new Puhoi to Warkworth highway in 2021.