Nothing about the Kopu Bridge has ever seemed logical. The 81-year-old structure offers the main access to the Coromandel, a prime holiday destination in a country that prides itself on its tourism appeal. Yet since the 1950s it has been apparent that the one-way bridge could not cope with the volume of traffic to the area. Over summer, especially, tourists suffer infuriating delays of anything up to two hours. The building of a replacement two-lane structure has seemed an obvious priority for many, many years to all except those holding the purse-strings. Now, safety concerns suggest an even more urgent need for a new bridge.
Transit's website says the present structure does not meet modern earthquake standards and is, therefore, vulnerable to natural disasters. Sections could potentially collapse in a moderate earthquake, it says. The warning is particularly apposite because the area sits on the Kerepehi faultline. In response to these concerns, Transit's chief executive, Rick van Barneveld, has pointed out, quite reasonably, that a structure built in 1927 could not be expected to meet modern design and construction standards. Analysis had shown it was likely to withstand an earthquake of between one-in-300-year and one-in-500-year magnitude. The risk of such an earthquake was "quite low", he said.
While Mr van Barneveld's statement may be somewhat reassuring, it must be assessed in terms of the location of the bridge and its importance to the Coromandel economy. The fact remains that a structure sitting in the neighbourhood of a faultline would not withstand anything more than a minor earthquake. This suggests work on a replacement structure should be a matter of high priority.
That makes all the more disappointing Transit's confirmation that construction of a new $32 million bridge will not begin until mid-2011. This has been portrayed as a step forward, but, given that construction will take two to three years, it is, quite simply, not good enough. In the first instance, it extinguishes previous optimism that Transit would get the funding to start the project 12 months earlier.
Secondly, there should be far greater urgency if only to ensure the work does not drift further into the future, as has so often been the case. In 1999, Transit said the bridge would be replaced by 2003. By the latter year, however, it had relegated a new structure to 45th of 54 projects in its 10-year state highway priority plan and pushed the starting date back to 2010-11. The new date places the project at the tail of that schedule, a move which Transit ascribes to more urgent priorities in the Waikato area.
It has always been difficult to conceive what these may be. Safety is just one of several concerns about the bridge. It is a blight on the state highway system in the way it renders meaningless any notions of efficiency and ease of travel. Equally, it is worth pondering the consequences for the Coromandel if the bridge were destroyed by an earthquake. Taking the long alternative route through Paeroa might be almost tolerable for Auckland holiday-makers once a year but is not acceptable in terms of sustaining a regional economy.
The Kopu Bridge has been a national embarrassment for far too long. Any notion of it being a quaint relic disappeared years ago as the volume of traffic to the Coromandel increased. Quite why a replacement structure has not been built has never been clear. If funding is an issue, this could be overcome by extracting a toll from bridge-users. It is a price most tourists would happily pay. Better that than continuing to use a structure that has long been a byword for frustration and now, to boot, is potentially dangerous.