The plan to build a cycling and walking path over the Auckland Harbour Bridge, popularly known as Skypath, has run into "significant and complex engineering issues". The Herald understands the current design will be scrapped.
Other options are being considered but these are likely to involve substantial delays.
The problem appears to relate to the capacity of the piers to take the extra load. A replacement plan may be announced at some time in the future.
The bridge pathway is part of the $360 million Northern Pathway, an ambitious plan revealed in May 2019 by Waka Kotahi, the NZ Transport Agency. Of the total cost, $240 million is for the bridge and $120m is to extend the pathway to the Akoranga bus station near Northcote.
At the time, Waka Kotahi's general manager of system design and delivery, Brett Gliddon, said the plans were complete and he expected construction would begin the next year, 2020.
Waka Kotahi's own surveys suggest there is 78 per cent support for a pathway for cycling and walking over the bridge.
An earlier plan, promoted by a private group, the Skypath Trust, involved hanging a structure from the clipped-on outer lanes on the east side of the bridge. It was consented in 2016. But the "clip-ons" are not designed to carry that extra weight and Waka Kotahi rejected the plan.
Instead, its 2019 proposal has the structure cantilevered off the concrete piers that hold up the whole bridge. But that is now in doubt too.
No one at Waka Kotahi would confirm the current plan is about to be scrapped. Nor would the Minister of Transport, Michael Wood. But the signs are clear.
Waka Kotahi's director of regional relationships, Steve Mutton, has advised the advocacy group Bike Auckland that the Northern Pathway plan has "technical problems with how the pathway is supported".
That indicates the problem is with the piers.
This was further suggested last month, when Brett Gliddon, now Waka Kotahi's general manager of transport services, and the board chairman, Sir Brian Roche, appeared before a parliamentary select committee. Gliddon told the committee it was no longer possible to strengthen the bridge.
"We believe we've strengthened it as much as we possibly can and we can't add more steel into it... it's counter-productive."
There is only one proposal to "add more steel" to the bridge. It's not for trucks or general traffic. And it's got nothing to do with the closure of the bridge last year when an empty truck blew into one of the struts and damaged it.
The only proposal to add more steel is the bridge section of the Northern Pathway for cycling and walking, cantilevered off the piers.
The Herald asked Michael Wood if this was what Gliddon was referring to.
"Ah," he said. "Detective work."
Like the agency, he would not directly confirm the existing proposal has been scrapped. He described the pathway as "a complex and important project" that involves "significant and complex engineering issues".
"I'm confident we will get a good outcome," he said.
When asked if he could confirm the 2019 proposal has been scrapped and Waka Kotahi is now working on new options, he remained silent.
The job of building the Northern Pathway was given to an "alliance" of design and construction companies in August last year. It is their work that has exposed the problems with the existing design.
The Herald has attempted to interview senior figures at Waka Kotahi and been advised that no one is available.
When it was suggested that as a public agency Waka Kotahi has a duty to talk to media, a spokesperson said, "Yes, that's right, but we will not be doing that at this time."
When the Herald asked why, he said, "Our hands are tied."
The Herald asked, "By whom?"
The answer was, "I can't tell you."
The same spokesperson recently told the Devonport Flagstaff, in relation to delays since the 2019 announcement: "It takes as long as it takes."
It now seems extremely unlikely that the bridge section of the Northern Pathway, as announced, will happen. More steel cannot be added to the bridge.
Waka Kotahi provided the Herald with a written statement in the name of Brett Gliddon. In it, he said, "A walking and cycling connection over the Waitematā Harbour is a priority for the Government and Waka Kotahi."
There was no mention of what options are now being considered.
There are two obvious alternatives. The first is to do what New York is about to do on the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges: convert one of the vehicle lanes into a cycle lane. The Brooklyn Bridge already has a walkway, above the roadway, which will remain for pedestrians.
About 170,000 vehicles use the bridge each day, but the numbers are not rising. The main reason for that is the Northern Busway, which now carries 38 per cent of peak morning commuters. A reduction in traffic due to the Covid pandemic has also been recorded.
Bike Auckland's Barb Cuthbert says Waka Kotahi should convert a lane for bikes now. "Sadly, it would have to be for cyclists only," she said. "It would be mainly commuters during the week and for families and other recreational users in the weekends."
"The popularity of e-bikes is changing everything," she said. "There would be massive use."
Cuthbert said the lane would be on the west side, looking out to the upper harbour. "Conversion of a lane on the bridge would be relatively cheap and easy. Apart from barriers to separate the lane from other traffic, the only construction involved would be access ramps."
At the south end the cycle lane would connect to the existing Westhaven shared pathway into the city. In the north, the lane would exit at Stafford Rd, leading up into Northcote and the existing bike lanes on Queen St.
Cuthbert said that to make the lane fully functional for users on the Shore, the "Seapath" section of the Northern Pathway will still be needed, including cycling access from Takapuna along Esmonde Rd.
"But converting a lane and adding the ramps could be done now. We need it now."
Transport Minister Michael Wood disagreed. He said this option is not being considered.
"A number of people have put that forward," he told the Herald. "But there are tradeoffs. That's not the option we're contemplating."
The second option is to build a new structure, perhaps hard up against the existing bridge. This would require a completely new design, a new consenting process and a lot of money. A new bridge, even restricted to cycling and walking, would be expensive.
Wood said that wasn't necessarily an issue. "Major assets will always require an investment and this Government is committed to a quality outcome for cycling and walking over the Waitematā harbour."
This appeared to be the option Wood favours.
A third option also exists: to scrap the whole thing, and wait for it to be resolved with a third harbour crossing.
But that is unlikely any time soon. As Waka Kotahi has consistently said, if heavy vehicle use is managed, the bridge will be able to fulfil its existing functions for another 10-30 years.
Cuthbert: "If the solution is to wait for a new crossing, that means converting an existing lane for bikes should be done right now. Maybe it's a temporary solution, but for heaven's sake, let's see how well it works. For everyone.
"You know what? It'll be full within a year."
The history of the harbour bridge
• The original bridge opened in 1959 as a steel box-truss structure sitting on concrete piers, with four lanes of traffic and tolls. For cost reasons, the plan to include walking and cycling was dropped.
• Four more lanes added in 1969, in a lightweight construction, with steel box girders carrying two lanes on each side cantilevered from the piers and clipped to the existing structure. This is the "clip-ons".
• Vehicles over 13 tonnes banned on the bridge in 2007.
• Discussions about adding a cycling and walking pathway began in earnest in 2007.
• Clip-on girders reinforced in 2009 with 920 tonnes more steel. NZTA announced the clip-ons could not take further strengthening but that the bridge would have a further life of 20-40 years if heavy traffic was managed.
• Skypath, a cycling and walking pathway hanging from the eastern clip-on proposed by GetAcross campaign in 2009 as a privately funded project. Added to Auckland Transport's strategic priority list in 2011.
• Skypath consented in 2015, with final approval from the Environment Court in 2016.
• The new Labour-led Government in 2017 announces it will fully fund Skypath.
• Waka Kotahi's new design for a Northern Pathway, with the bridge section sitting on the piers, not slung from the clip-on, revealed in 2019.
• Waka Kotahi reminded parliamentary select committee in February 2021 the bridge could not take extra steel, thus calling into doubt the Northern Pathway design.
• New Auckland Transport Alignment Project released in March 2021. An agreement on transport priorities and spending to 2031 between the Government and Auckland Council, it confirmed $360m commitment to Northern Pathway and did not include a new harbour crossing.