After two-and-a-half years of roadworks, traffic diversions and driver headaches, a $194m, 8km stretch of gleaming, four-laned highway crossing six new bridges is about to open on Hamilton's northern doorstep.
And everyone is hoping the new expressway will deliver welcome relief for motorists battling the city's congested thoroughfares.
The ribbon is to be cut on the key Te Rapa link in the $2.4 billion Waikato expressway today and when traffic hits it on Monday it's not just local drivers who will reap the benefits, with motorists passing through to get a whole new view of Hamilton's northern gateway.
NZ Transport Agency's Waikato expressway principal project manager Richard Young said the section, delivered under-budget and six months ahead of schedule, was also an integral part of the city's future growth.
"We're very conscious as an agency there's been an awful lot of roadworks to the north of Hamilton and there still are."
More than 10,000 cars will now be diverted away from busy intersections like the one at the corner of Wairere Dr and Te Rapa Rd and outside The Base each day, easing the path for city commuters.
Mr Young said in the long term the expressway would free up land around Hamilton for commercial, industrial and residential development.
The Te Rapa section is elevated at the southern end to allow future development in the Rotokauri area.
Travelling south from the Horotiu roundabouts, the expressway passes through undulating countryside with views across to Mt Pirongia - a far cry from the industrial clutter of Te Rapa Rd which has greeted visitors for decades.
"As people come into Hamilton from the north . . . they will be coming through a more rural area instead of coming down Te Rapa Rd so it will change people's perspectives of arriving in Hamilton quite significantly," Mr Young said.
The section features two lanes in both directions for the majority of its length. It narrows down to one lane in each direction as it picks up traffic near Wintec's Rotokauri campus.
A key feature of the section is the 140m-long main trunk rail bridge.
Alliance Project manager Tony Dickens said the section build was a highlight of his 40-year career but admitted to mixed feelings on the eve of its opening.
"It's actually a grieving time would you believe. This has been our baby for 2 years and the process now is to give it away and it's no longer ours.
"You feel as if you're losing something and you've got to come to terms with that."
Mr Dickens said settled weather during the 2010-2011 summer put the project ahead of schedule.
He also paid tribute to his "great team".
"Behind the foundations laid by that settled summer has been the fantastic planning and enthusiasm from the whole design and construction team. I think what we've created is a really sophisticated entrance for Hamilton. "
Old Maori names reprised for expressway
An old name was reprised for the new section of the Waikato Expressway and local Maori hope it will keep their history intact for future generations.
The Te Rapa section of road is called Mangaharakeke Dr and is the original place name of the area where construction of the road is now complete.
Regional transport committee cultural representative Wiremu Puke said using the name was a significant step in reviving locales that had been nearly lost over 146 years.
Mangaharakeke was a flax filled gully that extended from Horotiu to Avalon Dr and was an important resource in pre-European times and for trade with settlers.
"It was a place where flax was gathered by Ngati Koura. They were gum digging as well right up to the land war and after." The land has changed drastically over the years but Mr Puke said the remnants of the gully can still be seen along State Highway One opposite the Te Rapa dairy factory.
Two Ngati Koura ancestors are commemorated on road signs at the both ends of Mangaharakeke Dr - Koura Dr at the northern interchange and Te Wetini Dr at the new entrance to the Wintec campus.
"Having their names re-instated is a huge step forward for those descendants of those two ancestors that suffered the land wars and confiscation," Mr Puke said.
"Even though the land may not have been returned to them personally it is at least some recognition of their ancestral rights to these lands."
Mr Puke hopes other hapu will take their lead and work with authorities to help revive local history along the Waikato Expressway.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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