Northland is experiencing its largest ever programme of work on its State Highways. Among the numerous projects the Transport Agency has underway in the region, a number of existing single lane bridges are currently being replaced. By Mary Searle Bell.
On State Highway 12, Matakohe is having two bridges replaced as part of an alignment improvement. The old, single-lane bridges are being superseded by two-lane bridges and the corresponding 2.5 kilometre road realignment will remove tight curves and short straights. Meanwhile on the southern shore of Doubtless Bay, the current one-lane Taipa bridge is also being replaced with a two-lane structure.
But what makes these projects special is their role in supporting regional economic development – they each have a particular focus on supporting social economic outcomes for the community.
“The bridge is a catalyst for economic development,” says Jim Sephton, principal project manager. “We’re working closely with the local community to ensure the new bridges reflect community aspirations and allows them to participate in the benefits that tourism brings.
“We consulted with the local community from the beginning, saying, ‘We’re building a bridge for the future of your community, what do we need to do together?’”
The community has been involved in the design process throughout.
Jim says the vision for the team is ‘enhancing our community’s environment and economy through building better bridges’. He says that while provincial infrastructure investment supports economic growth, it is important that the growth is inclusive and has positive impacts across the board.
“We didn’t realise how disconnected the community was feeling – they didn’t see themselves as part of the success of tourism, just on the losing end – both environmentally and with congestion. So, we had to change the way we looked at the project, otherwise, not only would the locals not support the building of a new bridge, but it wouldn’t make any difference for the community either.”
To meet the vision, the whole team was brought into a collaborative approach, with community engagement paramount. The feedback had three key directives: to protect the safety of the community’s children; to protect the quality of the water in the Taipa River, not just for swimming, but as a source of food – the river has pipi beds and other kai moana; and to reflect the cultural significance of the area – the design acknowledges Taipa as an important landing place for Kupe in Aotearoa.
The new bridges have also provided an opportunity for other partners to contribute and create better social-economic outcomes for the community.
The whole area is low lying and prone to flooding, and the local school sits in a bowl, making it particularly vulnerable. As the pipes under the road needed upgrading anyway, the NZTA, working with the Far North District Council and Ministry of Education, have delivered a combined stormwater system that will improve capacity downstream and reduce the impact of flooding in the area.
“The council contributed to a longer-term solution,” says Jim. “It’s not just what’s best for the state highway, but what’s best for the community.”
By working together with community and council, the value the project delivers can be increased without necessarily increasing costs.
“Everything is on apps these days but Taipa has poor mobile coverage, so, as part of the street upgrades, working in collaboration with council, we will be installing new wi-fi enabled LED streetlights, so the kids and tourists can sit down outdoors near the river and connect to the wider world.”
With tourism a huge part of the local economy, and electric vehicles (including campervans) on the rise, ducting for electric vehicle charging has been laid under the new road, ready to connect when needed, and mitigating the need to dig up the road in the near future.
When it came to acknowledging the cultural history of the area, the design of the new bridge reflects a double hauled voyaging canoe, similar to the many waka that landed in this historical place. The prow (waka tauihu) end panels are facing in the direction of Cable Bay to welcome visitors to Taipa and further north, and there are stern (taurapa) end panels on the Taipa township side of the bridge.
As part of the road realignment, the historic Taipa monument has been relocated: the concrete sculpture, which shows Kupe’s waka under sail through waves, now sits on Taipa Area School’s northern field looking out over the Pacific Ocean.
In Matakohe, the two new bridges are just part of a larger 2.5-kilometre work site. This project is well underway, largely thanks to the ECI (Early Contractor Involvement) contract.
“We went from business case to construction in just nine months,” says Jim. “We had the consents lodged in three months, awarded in six, and enabling works underway in nine!”
He says the ECI model has been a big success, making significant cost savings as well as time savings.
“The competitive ECI tender allowed the contractors to come up with alternative designs – the winning tenderer, Fulton Hogan Aurecon, put the realignment through a local quarry. This meant we could use the rock, saving around $4 million in costs as well as time.
“We saw a huge benefit before work even began.”
Further to this, because the project is driven by what is good for the environment and the community, the council permitted the contractors to undertake limited works over winter, which has allowed an aggressive timeline. Consequently, the bulk of the work on this project is expected to be finished by mid-2019.
Jim credits the emphasis on iwi and community engagement for the project’s success.
“We worked hard to get the community behind us, and it has really paid off.
“The current road isn’t great, but businesses were concerned that the new road would see people driving straight past. Consequently, the team focused on the design of the intersection, and the signage, to encourage a stop in Matakohe.
“The community were also promoting a walking/cycle trail from Maungawhai to Dargaville. We picked up their ideas and developed the design in collaboration with Kaipara District Council and Te uri o Hau to make use of the old bridges and create an interesting experience. The historic artefacts that have been discovered during earthworks (middens and the like) will be displayed along the walkway.
“We’ve worked hard to build a foundation of trust, and have worked as partners to achieve things.”
As Jim says: Trust equals speed.
“You can do things differently when working from a basis of provincial growth. I think we can all learn a lot from these projects in terms of collaboration, and supporting inclusive growth by using infrastructure investment as a catalyst for change.”