This time next summer, motorists will be able to skip Hamilton on a new section of highway.
No more deciding how to tackle local roads, roundabouts and sets of traffic lights; no more Gordonton Rd shortcuts; no more taking a wrong turn and getting lost.
What’s more, after what seems like a lifetime, State Highway 1 from Auckland to south of Cambridge will be four lanes or more. The picture will look even better with another four-lane section of the same road – between Pūhoi and Warkworth – scheduled to open in time for Queens Birthday weekend, 2022.
That will mean everyone from holidaymakers to haulage contractors will be able to drive on a four-lane highway from Warkworth, take one of two routes through Auckland, bypass Hamilton and carry on past Cambridge.
Upgrading SH1 south of the Bombay Hills began in the early 1990s when a two-lane road hugged the banks of the Waikato River. 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 former National Party Transport Minister Steven Joyce as 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 between Taupiri and Horotiu bypassing Ngaruawahia.
The 16km section between Hamilton and Cambridge opened in 2015 and the Rangiriri section followed in 2017.
Early this year, the 6km Longswamp section from Hampton Downs to Rangiriri opened, followed by the 15km Huntly bypass, east of the town and over the Taupiri Range, which is sacred to Waikato-Tainui Māori.
That just leaves the completion of the 21.8km, $607 million Hamilton bypass that starts at the Lake Rd junction with the Ngaruawahia section in the north. It then runs south, roughly along the border of the Hamilton City and Waikato District council areas, to the east of Hamilton.
Anyone familiar with long-running roadworks just south of Hamilton at Tamahere will not be surprised that is where the new expressway connects with SH1.
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 is the Tauranga east link toll road.)
Once the Waikato Expressway is completed it will cut 35 minutes off the drive from the top of the Bombays to south of Cambridge.
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency acting delivery project delivery manager Jo Wilton says all but one of the structures for the Hamilton section – 17 bridges and five interchanges – have been built. Only an underpass at Powells Rd is still under construction.
The bulk of earthworks have been completed, said Wilton, whose role covers Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. Over the next 12 months, the alliance building the expressway will focus on finishing the pavement and surfacing to open in late 2021.
The opening date was put back 12 months after three cyclones over summer 2017 restricted the earthworks season.
“This had a significant impact on our programme and our productivity. We had a lot of guys sitting in lunchrooms looking outside going ‘I can’t work’,” she says.
When motorists get to drive on the new expressway, says Wilton, there will be five interchanges allowing access to Hamilton, new housing subdivisions and rural areas.
On the environmental front, the borders and gullies along the route will be planted with 600,000 native and exotic plants.
Ten hectares of streams and gullies on the city fringe that are significant to residents and tangata whenua will be restored, says Wilton.
Plants like willow, blackberry, privet and gorse are being replaced with native flora and fauna. A 10-year pest control programme will target possums, rats and mice and the habitat will be restored with food and shelter for native species, including the endangered pekapeka, or native bat.
Another plus for motorists will be a “really, really safe road” that includes median and side barriers.
“It will prevent deaths and serious injuries that we don’t experience on other roads that are not quite as safe,” says Wilton.
The expressway will be built to handle a 110km/h speed limit, but whether it gets it has yet to be decided.
Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate said completion of the Waikato Expressway will be key to unlocking economic activity and population growth on the east of the city.
“In the coming years investment on the eastern side of Hamilton will mean thousands of new jobs, better freight and transport connections and, importantly, more housing, including affordable housing,” she said.
The Hamilton expressway links with Tainui Group Holdings’ development of the Ruakura Superhub, comprising the 30ha Ruakura inland port and a logistics and industrial precinct expected to create between 6000 and 12,000 jobs.
In October, the project was brought forward by a $40m Government funding package.
“Easy access to the expressway and other freight and commuter connections mean more efficient transport, safer travel and a reduced carbon footprint for consumer goods,” said Southgate.
“Hamilton is an incredibly important logistics hub at the centre of a freight and distribution sector critical to New Zealand.
“The Golden Triangle between Auckland and Tauranga generates 52 per cent of the national GDP so transport connections, including the expressway, are vital not just to our city, but to the country,” she said.
TRANSFORMING SH1, WARKWORTH TO CAMBRIDGE
18.5km extension of Auckland’s Northern Motorway
Completion date: May 2022
Links SH1 with SH18
Completion date: September 2022
Extra lanes in each direction
Completion date: Early 2020
Additional lanes for 20km in each direction
Start date: Early 2021. Completion date 2025.
6km stretch from Hampton Downs to Rangiriri
Completion date: March 2020
15km Huntly bypass, east of the town costing $384m
Completion date: February 2020
Completion date: Late 2021
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