A $2 billion road tunnel through the Kaimai Range as part of an expressway from Waikato to Tauranga is being touted as a realistic option by the road transport industry, which says freight volumes could make it viable.
A major upgrade of State Highway 29 between Waikato and Bay of Plenty is likely in the next decade and transport leaders say a new highway between the regions would help forge freight transport links between the two regions and Auckland and create a "golden triangle" of economic and population growth.
Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley said road transport operators thought a road tunnel could stack up economically within 20 years as freight grew and time and fuel costs were taken into account. "When we look at the future projections, all the modes of transport have to step up. The bulk will go by road. We believe it could well be that in the longer term a road tunnel through the Kaimais would be viable."
NZ Transport Agency regional director Harry Wilson said their assessment of 10 options for tunnelling the range estimated costs of up to $2 billion.
"The early indication from the benefit-cost analysis shows that right now a road tunnel looks prohibitively expensive, but we're not discounting it," Mr Wilson said.
Transport select committee chairman and Hamilton East MP David Bennett said the Waikato Expressway's completion was on the horizon and he wanted debate of the need for an upgraded link to the Bay.
"The next step is to look at our wider growth prospects. Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga will be the growth engine of New Zealand, and these links are going to be important for industry and jobs," he said.
"I think it's time to start moving on the Hamilton-Tauranga link. It's something we need to progress as quickly as possible. It would be a huge project and a major link between two big cities," Mr Bennett said.
Mr Shirley said the industry had pushed hard for the early assessment of the route by NZTA already under way.
"We're accepting of their costings. While it doesn't stack up today we're thinking long term. Our members end up paying for a lot of the cost anyway through road user charges. We don't want it built if it doesn't stack up economically, but we're talking beyond 10 years before a road tunnel might be viable," Mr Shirley said.
Mr Wilson said while a tunnel didn't yet make financial sense, SH29 was already seen as a critical route. "The benefits of the Waikato expressway are predicated on the assumption we'll move on to SH29 next," he said. "In the planning sense it's certainly already being talked about. In terms of funding it, really the next stage is to get funding certainty. But all the signals are that yes, it is the next key route." NZTA is undertaking preliminary route investigations looking at how the road could be made more efficient.
Regional land transport committee chairman Norm Barker said the two regions were meeting to ensure both were on the same page. "The Waikato is well aware it is the next big focus," he said.
- Waikato Times