Just before Christmas Michelle Johnson decided she had had enough of the traffic congestion in Kumeū, where every day 36,000 vehicles snake their way through the town.
Over two days she took photos of bumper-to-bumper traffic at a standstill outside Kumeū on State Highway 16 heading into Auckland city and emailed them to Transport Minister Michael Wood.
What should have been a 26-minute drive from her home in Huapai to work at Avondale took 1h 45m during the morning rush and 1h 20m later in the morning.
"I will be regularly sending these [photos] to demonstrate the seriousness of this situation and am asking for action from your office," Johnson said in the email to Wood.
Johnson, who moved to Huapai from Te Atatū South last year, is appalled at the traffic and has also started a petition to "Rectify and Address Congestion North West of Auckland".
"It can take an hour to get on to the Northwestern Motorway (along SH16). When you get to the roundabout at Old North Rd it's just gridlock. You look down Old North Rd and the traffic is piled up as far as the eye can see. The traffic is piled up down the Coatesville-Riverhead Highway. It's awful.
"I work as a sales rep; that involves travel and the stress of not knowing if you are going to make appointments on time is just constant.
"There is so much focus on the fact we have a housing shortage and trying to get as many houses built as possible but they are not putting anything into infrastructure. It really is strangling the area," Johnson says.
The local MP for Kaipara Ki Mahurangi, Chris Penk, says: "The reality is infrastructure is not keeping up with housing development."
He says weekend traffic through Kumeū is as bad as rush hour, if not worse.
The congestion at Kumeū is symptomatic of overloaded country roads and poor public transport in Northwest Auckland, which is expected to grow by more than 100,000 people to 150,000 people over the next 30 years with more than 40,000 new homes.
Between 2021 and 2026, the Northwest population is expected to explode by 50 per cent, from 50,090 to 75,532.
Kumeū and Huapai, not long ago quiet rural communities surrounded by vineyards run by Dalmatian families, is forecast to grow from 3400 residents to 25,000 over 30 years.
Figures show that between 2015 and 2020, Auckland Council issued 2277 building consents for new homes in the allotted Northwest Auckland growth areas of the Huapai Triangle, Huapai North, Whenuapai, Riverhead, Oraha Rd and Red Hills.
Phelan Pirrie has witnessed the problems in the Northwest first hand. As a local firefighter he has attended horrific head-on crashes on SH16. As chair of the Rodney Local Board he has waded through mountains of plans and reports.
"Everyone is just fed up and pissed off," he says.
He says the problems with SH16 go back to 2013 when the National-led Government set up two Special Housing Areas (SHAs) in Huapai - the Huapai Triangle for 1300 houses south of the highway and 6500 houses in North Huapai after 2028.
"The Government was going to make money available and put the infrastructure in. What has happened since is precisely nothing."
He says plans for the infrastructure, including a major intersection on Station Rd and SH16, have gone through multiple iterations. In the last political term, safety work and widening SH16 to four lanes got bogged down when the Labour Government added cycling and walking to the mix.
"Part of the blame lies with Auckland Transport, but NZTA [NZ Transport Agency] has this Byzantine process of approving projects that is linear. They won't do multiple processes at the same time."
NZTA's acting general manager for transport services, Vanessa Browne, says the Waimauku to Brigham Creek project is in two stages, with stage 1 from Waimauku to Huapai ready to start construction in April last year until an appeal to the Environment Court put work on hold.
She says work on stage 2 from Brigham Creek has continued, but the increased scope to include walking and cycling has resulted in substantial increases in costs and delays. The cost has soared from $50 million to $70m to $159m.
The Transport Agency still has a lot of work to do before construction can start, despite an earlier promise to begin construction in 2019. This includes purchasing extra land for the wider scope, geotechnical investigations and consents. The latest timeline is for work to start on stage 2 in early 2023 and be completed in late 2025, but these dates are "indicative only", says Browne.
Between 2010 and 2019, three people were killed and 29 seriously injured on SH16 between Kumeū and Brigham Creek, making it one of the highest-risk rural roads in New Zealand.
A week ago, Supporting Growth - the latest attempt by transport and council bureaucrats to match growth with infrastructure across Auckland - finished feedback on long-term transport connections for the Northwest.
Among the projects is a new 10.5km, four-lane highway from Brigham Creek to the west of Huapai which Pirrie said was not envisaged at the time of the Auckland Unitary Plan in 2016 when the land was zoned countryside living, and cuts through expensive lifestyle blocks. The bypass has an indicative price tag of $700m to $900m and is not planned for a further 10 to 30 years.
Pirrie says people think the bypass will relieve the current congestion through Kumeū and Huapai. It won't, he believes - it is being built for 6500 houses in Huapai North and 20,000 new residents.
Browne says the bypass arose from a partnership with the council and AT to develop a business case to respond to the pace, scale and growth identified in the Unitary Plan and a future land supply strategy.
The business case recommended "an alternative corridor parallel to SH16", to improve the Kumeū-Huapai town centre and provide a different route for long-distance travellers, she says.
AT will not make a decision on whether to support the bypass until a detailed business case is completed at the end of the year.
Warren McLennan, the Northwest planning manager at Auckland Council, says most of the new housing in the Northwest is occurring in areas planned for growth, but acknowledges the infrastructure is not keeping up. It's the same all over Auckland as the city experiences unprecedented growth, he says.
"What we are trying to do is establish a more strategic approach to development, which means that infrastructure and planning are much more closely aligned."
McLennan says he could not see approval for stage two at Whenuapai (11,600 houses) or Kumeū-Huapai-Riverhead (6600 houses) proceeding from 2028 until the necessary transport and water infrastructure is in place.
Last month, Fletcher Building took the council and locals by surprise when it was revealed the company had bought two dairy farms in the Northwest at Taupaki to potentially build thousands of homes by 2045.
The land is outside land zoned for future growth, leading planning committee chairman Chris Darby to say it would lead to "development occurring anywhere, any time" and ratepayers picking up the tab for infrastructure.
AT, which is responsible for local roads, walking and cycling routes and public transport, concedes it does not have enough money for all the priority projects in the Northwest. Upgrades to a number of busy roads - including Riverhead Rd, Coatesville-Riverhead Highway, Hobsonville Rd and Fred Taylor Drive - are not all funded and will go ahead over the next 10, 20 and 30 years, says a spokesman.
Supporting Growth has also dangled the prospect of "rapid transit" between Brigham Creek and Kumeū-Huapai in the future, but this is so vague and far off as to be meaningless to residents currently stuck in traffic.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and former Transport Minister Phil Twyford promised in 2017 that Labour would build rapid transit in the form of light rail from the Auckland CBD to Westgate within 10 years - later extending their plans to take the line to Kumeū - but the multibillion-dollar project was scrapped in April 2019.
With light rail off the agenda for the foreseeable future, debate continues on the pros and cons of extending commuter rail from Swanson to Kumeū-Huapai. Last month, this stretch of line was reopened as part of a $110m upgrade of the Auckland to Northland line to carry freight.
The Government, Auckland Transport and Auckland mayor Phil Goff have no appetite to extend commuter rail to Kumeū-Huapai for several reasons, including the indirect route to the Northwest, long travel times, cost and competition with rapid transit.
An AT spokesman says a high-level investigation into a diesel passenger service found relatively high capital and running costs and low patronage. Investing in two modes and corridors to serve the area is not affordable or good value for money.
Goff's position is that long-term the Northwest will get rapid transit, be it a busway like the Northern Busway or light rail.
Former Auckland Regional councillor Christine Rose and National's Penk are pushing hard for commuter rail, saying it is part of the transport solution and can be provided quickly.
Penk says residents identify strongly with the fact there is a rail line running parallel to SH16, which does not carry commuter passengers, within a stone's throw of the Special Housing Area at Huapai and multiple schools.
He says the argument it will take 65 minutes to travel by train from Kumeū-Huapai to Britomart is irrelevant because it is already taking that long by car, the opening of the City Rail Link will reduce travel times and a lot of people will be travelling to other stops along the line, such as Henderson, New Lynn and Grafton (Auckland City Hospital).
The historic excuses no longer wash and it would be foolish not to capitalise on the $110m sunk into the North Auckland line, says Rose.
She says there will come a time when there is no green belt between Westgate and Kumeū and rail is needed to serve that development.
"Light rail hasn't been proven over the past three years, whereas conventional rail is a tried and true mode of rapid transit. Meanwhile congestion gets worse by the day."
The other piece of infrastructure driving people mad is the Northwestern Motorway, which the former National Government widened without adding a busway.
"All I will say diplomatically, if it [a busway] had been provided for in the first instance it would have been useful," says Penk, who was not an MP when National chose not to build a busway.
In November 2019, the Herald reported on advanced plans for dedicated bus lanes and bus stops at Westgate, Te Atatū and Lincoln Rd and last year AT received $100m to do the work with NZTA.
AT and NZTA are working to a "five-year horizon" to build bus stops at Lincoln Rd and Te Atatū motorway interchanges, a bus station at Westgate similar to those on the Northern Busway and increasing the bus shoulder lanes on the motorway from 13km to almost 23km. Once finished, there's a promise of a 45-minute journey by bus to the city centre.
All going to plan, the Te Atatū and Lincoln Rd bus stops will be open in mid-to-late 2022 along with extended bus shoulder lanes. The Westgate station will open in late 2023.
When all is said and done, Pirrie says, there are some really dumb dynamics at play between central and local government, which means it is taking so long to get anything done. Meanwhile, the traffic is getting worse and worse.
"It's now quicker to catch a bus from Riverhead to Albany and catch a bus to the city centre than to drive from Riverhead to the city on SH16," he said.
Johnson says the situation is absurd, stress levels are rising and she knows of people who have moved out because they cannot cope any longer.
Asked if she regrets moving to Huapai, Johnson says: "When I'm sitting in the traffic I do. When I'm sitting at home on my deck with a beer I don't."