It's summer, and that means packing the car and getting stuck in holiday traffic on route to the bach and beach. To help plan the trip, transport reporter Bernard Orsman updates progress on some of our biggest motorway projects.
There's good news for motorists driving on the Waikato Expressway during the summer holidays.
The 70km/h crawl through Huntly, stop-starting at two sets of traffic lights, is about to end when a new bypass is opened to traffic shortly after a public open day on February 15.
What's more the new 5.9km Longswamp section just north of Huntly has been open on all four lanes with side and central safety barriers since before Christmas.
NZ Transport Agency Waikato portfolio manager Darryl Coalter said there was still some final surface work to complete early in the New Year "but having holiday traffic spread across the new lanes has been a priority".
Southbound traffic will be able to travel at 100km/h, but northbound traffic will be restricted to 70km/h until the final asphalt surfacing is complete in the New Year.
"Building a four-lane highway with up to 30,000 vehicles a day to manage through the work site has been a challenge," said another NZ Transport Agency spokesman.
One setback for the expressway is completion of the 22km Hamilton bypass to the east of the city will take another 12 months.
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A very wet summer in 2016-2017 saw the first season of earthworks severely impacted, which had flow-on effects. After a mid-year review this year, the completion date was reset to late 2021.
None of these issues, however, change the timetable for completing all seven sections of the Waikato Expressway by the end of next year and completing the 100km drive from Auckland to Cambridge on a four-lane highway without passing through Hamilton.
No more deciding which route to tackle through local roads, roundabouts and sets of traffic lights. No more Gordonton Rd shortcuts. No more taking a wrong turn and getting lost.
When Hamilton approaches, motorists will be able to whisk past the city and carry on south. Once complete, the Waikato Expressway is expected to reduce travel times from Auckland to Tirau by 35 minutes.
The Hamilton section, costing $607 million, starts at the Lake Rd junction with the Ngaruawahia section in the north. It then runs south, to the east of Hamilton, where it connects to the Tamahere expressway just south of the city.
From there, it's a nice drive on the Cambridge section of the Waikato Expressway, one of two sections of motorway in New Zealand with a 110km/h speed limit. The other section is the Tauranga east link toll road.
Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate said the completion of the Waikato Expressway had been the Waikato's top priority for the past 20 years, saying SH1 between Auckland and Hamilton had an appalling crash record and it is a huge relief to see it coming down.
She said the Government has recognised that the Hamilton to Auckland corridor is one of the most important pieces of work in the country to get right, given the enormous growth in both cities and the key role each plays in the national economy.
Hamilton is facing major growth – an extra 40 people per week are moving here - and there's no sign of that letting up.
"We are continuing to work closely with NZTA to make sure the Expressway will be well connected with the city when it opens. The last local road overbridge on Horsham Downs Rd is now complete so that's a big milestone," said the mayor.
"It's fabulous to see the project nearing completion."
Southgate said it was good to see the Government partnering with the council to commence a passenger rail service between Hamilton and Auckland next year to complement the Expressway work.
It's a view shared by local Labour list MP Jamie Strange, who said the expressway and commuter rail will give people a range of transport options to move around the region.
Upgrading SH1 south of the Bombay Hills began in the early 1990s when a two-lane road hugged the banks of the Waikato River and a stretch of highway from the end of the Southern Motorway to just north of Mercer was expanded to four lanes.
Since then various roading improvements have been made between Auckland and Hamilton, but it wasn't until 2009 the remaining seven sections were funded and branded the Waikato Expressway by Transport Minister Steven Joyce as being one of seven "Roads of National Significance".
The Te Rapa bypass was the first section to be opened in December 2012, followed 12 months later by a 12.3km section of the expressway between Taupiri and Horotiu, bypassing Ngaruawahia.
The 16km section between Hamilton and Cambridge opened in 2015 and the Rangiriri section followed in 2017.
This leaves just the Huntly and Hamilton sections to be completed. A 16km extension of the expressway from Cambridge to Piarere has been canned by the new Labour-led Government as it switches focus from new motorways to road safety improvements.
National MP for Hamilton East, David Bennett, has lamented the decision, saying it would have benefited the region and provided an important link with Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty.
Automobile Association spokesman Barney Irvine said the Waikato Expressway should be extended to Piarere as soon as possible.
"Smaller scale safety work is good in the short term, if that's as much as we can afford, but ultimately it needs to be a complete solution and we can't wait decades for it," he said.
Labour's Nanaia Mahuta, MP for Hauraki-Waikato, has said more money has come from the city to the regions, including $235m to finish the Waikato expressway and the first section of the Hamilton to Cambridge cycleway.
Since August, good progress has been made on the Hamilton section of the expressway with the bridge deck completed on the Resolution Drive interchange and the Horsham Downs Rd bridge completed at the northern end.
At the southern end, construction has resumed on the Ruakura rail bridge that crosses the east coast main trunk line, the Mangaonua Stream structure is complete and the most disruptive work is over at the southern interchange where it ties in with the new expressway.
At Huntly, work has focused on building pavement to support the new 15km bypass. This has involved bringing in 300,000 tonnes of rock from Waikato quarries and 42,000 tonnes of asphalt to surface the road ahead of the February opening.
Work has continued to rid the neighbouring 650ha Taupiri Scientific Reserve of pests and plantings at wetlands and other areas.
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