The national Transport Agency's planning application for the Northern Motorway extension to Warkworth offers a good indication of its likely path. The first thing that may strike those who travel between Auckland and Warkworth is that the new four-lane motorway is not for them. It leaves the existing road at Puhoi and rejoins it some distance north of Warkworth.
The residents of that rapidly growing town and coastal resorts of the Mahurangi and Matakana districts do not appear to be served by the published alignment. Coming from Auckland, they may have to leave the motorway at the exit from the Johnstones Hill tunnels and take the present road all the way to Warkworth.
The second thing that may strike them about the plan is that it takes no account of the hazardous and highly congested Warkworth turnoff to the Matakana and Sandspit roads. A re-alignment of that intersection is due in the next year or two but may be reassessed now in the belief that congestion will be reduced by a motorway that will bypass the town.
The $760 million motorway extension, which the Government calls a "road of national significance" and opponents call a "holiday highway", is expected to take so much traffic off the existing road that travelling time from Johnstones Hill to the turnoff will be reduced by 15.8 minutes at the start of a long weekend. Considering how slow the holiday journey can be on that stretch, 15 minutes does not seem a significant gain for the money.
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At least the Government cannot be accused of favouring the best-known owner of a holiday home at Omaha. The Puhoi extension with its viaducts and sweeping vistas will benefit traffic heading to Northland more than those making day or weekend trips to Snells Beach, Tawharanui or Leigh.
Yet the Transport Agency's report acknowledges that Warkworth's population has had an average annual growth of 2.75 per cent over the past 10 years, much higher than even Auckland's annual average (1.6 per cent) in the same period. The town is designated for even higher growth in the Auckland Council's 30-year projections. The coastal areas east of the town are bound to gain population at a similar rate. The "holiday highway" will be a suburban highway one day.
For the immediate future - or at least in seven years or so on the agency's roading programme - the extended motorway promises a welcome improvement for the journey to Whangarei and the Far North. The first thing travellers might notice is that the charming Puhoi settlement is more visible from a viaduct. And Puhoi stands to gain a more pleasant connection to the coast with a road under the viaduct.
The motorway extension will be effectively an extension of the northern gateway tolled road since there will be no other way of entering it from the south. Northbound drivers who avoid the toll by diverting through Orewa will have to stay on the present road to Warkworth.
But the plans submitted for the motorway suggest that it will be up to the same fine standard of the northern gateway. The design and engineering of the tolled new section of the motorway is splendid and makes the most of the landscape it passes.
The next stage should be even more spectacular considering the terrain and native forest it will traverse.
Eventually a four-lane carriageway will extend to Wellsford. Like the widening and straightening of highways to Waikato and the Bay of Plenty in recent years, the northern extension will make travel safer as well as faster. It is much more than a "holiday highway". Northland's economy will probably gain the greatest benefit. But the plan could do more for Warkworth and the towns nearby. A ramp to Matakana Rd would help.