Tauranga port link priority for expressway
The newest section of the Waikato Expressway is a dream to drive. The four-lane highway has long straights, swooping bends and new perspectives on old views for regular travellers.
And then it stops just south of Cambridge and returns to the old two-lane State Highway 1 we've been travelling for decades.
Hamilton City Councillor Martin Gallagher is baffled by the termination point.
"I've always considered it unusual and curious we would finish the expressway just south of Cambridge," he said.
He pointed to 16 kilometres farther down the road - the Piarere junction - as a more logical place to end the expressway, where vehicles destined for Tauranga turn off SH1 and make their way to the Kaimai Range on SH29.
"For Hamilton's economy, an efficient road and rail link between us and Tauranga and south to Tirau and Taupo are crucial - [though] I acknowledge the work they are already doing in rail."
Waikato's economic future depends on a fast and safe transport network, Gallagher said.
"It is very important that we make sure the route south of Cambridge to Tauranga and Tirau is adequately future-proofed and that future-proofing would involve four-laning at some stage."
But in the short-term, there are safety concerns to deal with as drivers adapt to coming off the expressway and on to old roads. He wants to see wire-rope barriers set up, especially south of the expressway's end.
"I'm predicting, sadly, we will continue to see a range of tragic accidents on those routes."
South Waikato District Mayor Neil Sinclair agrees that safety is a concern on the older sections of SH1.
The speeds of South Waikato traffic seem to have increased since Transport Minister Simon Bridges opened the Cambridge section of the Waikato Expressway, Sinclair said.
"One of the things that I am concerned about is people have come off the Cambridge bypass and they have got used to the speed."
The latest section of the Waikato Expressway - the $250 million Cambridge section - opened on December 15.
Once complete in 2020, the $2.1 billion highway will boast more than 110km of road and will bypass Huntly, Hamilton and Cambridge and axe 35 minutes of drive time between Auckland and Tirau.
The Huntly, Longswamp and Hamilton sections are yet to be opened, but Taupo Mayor David Trewavas said his town has already reaped the economic benefits of faster travel times.
"To be honest, that's our biggest credit card spend - people in Auckland," Trewavas said.
"It used to be in the old days Hawke's Bay, Rangitikei, Whanganui and all those sorts of places."
He said residents from the main centres and "new New Zealanders" are a visible presence in the town.
And he had Paymark figures to back up his impressions. Those show an increase in credit card purchases in the district.
"About 30 per cent of our purchases in our area are from cards initiated in Auckland and it's just increasing by the day."
Taupo would thrive if a four-lane highway extended into the central plateau from Tokoroa, but he is unaware of any plans, apart from some "general enhancements".
"If you can enhance that connectivity, it just means ease of access to people and, let's face it, 20 minutes off a three-and-a-half-hour to four-hour journey, that makes a hell of a difference."
Waikato Regional Council's 2015-to-2045 Land Transport Plan recognised SH1 between Auckland and Taupo and SH29 to Tauranga as the only national high volume roads in the region.
Improved roads between Taupo and Turangi have been put back on the agenda after years of languishing on the back burner. It would fix the winding roads around the lake's edge.
"We have got on the Long Term Plan now the Bulli Point scenario to sort the area out - those windy roads on the way to Turangi.
"I don't know what the [immediate] plan is, but it is back on the 20-year plan."
The road to Tauranga would be first off the blocks, said National Party Taupo electorate MP Louise Upston.
"If you asked me which is the next priority, to me it is the section from Cambridge to Tauranga, at Piarere," Upston said.
Completion of the golden triangle between the three cities is critical, she said.
And for the regions, it allows logging trucks from Taupo and Te Kuiti better, faster and cheaper access over the Kaimai Range to the Port of Tauranga.
"We want to make sure that route from the central plateau forests, given that we are expecting increase over the next decade, we want to make sure the route to Tauranga port is good," Upston said.
South Waikato black spots were the priority in the past. However, major works like the Taupo Bypass, the Atiamuri Bridge, the Tirau roundabout and the Piarere to Oak Tree Bend corner realignment are all completed.
A four-lane connection between them is not in the plans - yet.
But they could be, said Upston. Remember, Cambridge residents wanted a bypass built back in the 1960s.
"If something is being talked about now, yes, it will get on the plan, but not on the planning in the next 10 years."