As thousands of people sit in massive queues trying to get north of Auckland for the holidays, work continues on one of the country's biggest motorway projects in recent years which is tipped to make that drive a whole lot better.

In 10 years, it is projected approximately 35,000 vehicles a day will use the new Puhoi to Warkworth Road of National Significance (RoNs) and the former State Highway 1, where work is being done to extend the four-lane northern motorway, north of the Johnstone's Hill tunnels, to tie in with the existing SH1, north of Warkworth.

The official name for the project is Ara Tuhono: Puhoi to Warkworth and the aim is simple: To improve the safety and connection between Northland and other parts of the North Island - namely Auckland, Waikato and Tauranga - for freight, tourists and motorists alike.

Hundreds of people have been working hard, both on the ground and behind the scenes in the office, since work officially started in November 2016.

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Driving out to the area, forest green and scenic views suddenly give way to large cleared areas, diggers and construction sites.

A large-scale base of temporary offices has been set up at Wyllie Road and anyone heading out onto the still rugged tracks is required to wear high-vis vests, safety boots and hard hats.

Among those leading the operation on the ground is Mark Blanchard, the Superintendent for the southern zone of the project.

Blanchard, who has worked on roads around the world for the past 20 years, has spent almost 10 years away from New Zealand working on improving roads around the Pacific. He has come home specifically to help with this motorway.

View of Puhoi to Warkworth motorway works from the top of Moir Hill at the end of Moir Hill road, south of Warkworth. Photo / Nick Reed
View of Puhoi to Warkworth motorway works from the top of Moir Hill at the end of Moir Hill road, south of Warkworth. Photo / Nick Reed

While driving towards one of the look-out zones, he points out the various access tracks they have laid in the past year - his voice interrupted now and again thanks to the bumps in the road. They have worked closely alongside the Department of Conservation as well as local iwi as part of the job, he says.

"There's still a lot of work to be done over the next three seasons.

"Overall, in the southern zone, there is over 700,000 cubic metres to be cut and fill over the whole zone in the first season."

Asked how this road stood up to others he had worked on over the years, Blanchard is quick to answer.

"Getting up there, yeah, it's a big project."

THE ROAD ITSELF:

And so it is. When it is completed in 2021, the new stretch of road will run for 18.5km and, at its peak, more than 500 people will have been involved in making it happen.

Up to 162ha of vegetation will be cleared as part of the project and which will include pine plantations. That vegetation removed will be replaced by what is being promised as a "significant planting programme" of natural vegetation throughout.

Particular features of the road include a low-noise asphalt surface, which will also be porous - allowing water to escape and avoiding wheel spray.

There will be seven bridges and a wire rope barrier along the median of the motorway. Unlike the concrete barriers often seen on other motorways, the wire rope is said to be better at absorbing impact when a vehicle crashes into it.

The road itself will be without long straights and will curve in and around the natural contours of the land as much as possible. Drivers on the new motorway will also go through forested sections and in between natural rock faces.

"People using the road will have a truly scenic trip. Going between the majestic 50-metre high cut slopes of Pakiri sedimentary rock...will give a sense of going through the rock face. Wire mesh will be laid over the rock face to prevent any rockfall,'' an official fact sheet reads.

One of the best views to see the work being done is the top of Moir Hill, where hundreds of trees have been felled in the last few months.

The NZ Transport Agency's system design manager, Brett Gliddon, has seen the project in a different light - on paper, drawings and on plans - for the past several years. On the day the Herald visits, he too gets to see the cleared area now filled with large machinery and workers for the first time.

That in itself, was a career-building experience, he said.

"It's great for all the staff and all the engineers - to have the opportunity to be involved and do their careers on jobs like this, which are once in a lifetime chances."

He said when the work was done, it would be an impressive and important piece of road.

"The existing road - State Highway 1 - is windy, it's unsafe, has a bad safety record.''

There were issues around Hill St and Warkworth that frustrated a lot of local drivers and members in the community, he said.

Not only was this motorway about improving the safety of the corridor, but also about better accessibility around Warkworth and getting better and safer access through to Northland.

"Providing good, high-quality access into Northland is gonna make a big difference to Northland into the future.''

HISTORY IN THE MAKING:

The Northern Express Group, or the NX2, is delivering the motorway under a Public Private Partnership contract and will look after it for 25 years once it is built and ready.

The Puhoi to Warkworth job is only the second big motorway in New Zealand to be built through such a contract. The first was Wellington's Transmission Gully, due to be ready by early 2020.

Members of the public will be able to get a closer look at the work being done in their backyard during public open days being organised over the next four years - the first which occurred in early December.

In the mean time, drone footage over the area also gives a unique insight of how the work is progressing.

Many of those working on the job were from the local community and iwi. The youngest member on his team, Blanchard said, was a 17-year-old local teenager.

"In the southern zone, we've got about 80 to 90 staff at the moment. It's expected to grow to about 140 through the peak time.

There was a feeling of pride among the workers, who understood they were a part of something historic, he said.

"The general feeling amongst the boys is that they're very much excited to be part of the project. It's a real team atmosphere.

"It's a real local theme atmosphere which everybody's enjoying and they're really glad to be a part of it."

KEY STATS:

• Approx 35,000 vehicles set to use the new Puhoi to Warkworth motorway and the former SH1 per day

18.5km in length

4-lane extension to the Northern Motorway (SH1) from the Johnstone's Hill Tunnels, at Puhoi, to tie-in with existing SH1, north of Warkworth

6780m of culverts being laid

500 plus people due to be involved in the project at its peak

162ha vegetation to be cleared, including pine plantations

• Due to be completed in late 2021