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The striking light effects on the Tirohanga Whanui Bridge

Engagement brings win/win for communities and the Transport Agency – By Dave MacIntyre

Embedding customer engagement into its major projects is paying off for the NZ Transport Agency, giving communities more of what they want and clearing the way for greater agreement when proposals go before boards of inquiry.

The commitment to early community and stakeholder engagement – called the NZTA Way – is even winning international recognition. Last year, the Northern Corridor Improvements (NCI) project was voted the IAP2 International Project of the Year. IAP2 is an international association whose members seek to promote and improve the practice of public participation in projects throughout the world, through its Core Values Awards.

The Transport Agency’s success was for the 2016/17 planning and consenting stage of the project to build a new motorway connection between State Highways 1 and 18 on Auckland’s North Shore. The project will complete the Western Ring Route, as well as increasing transport choices by extending the Northern Busway and creating over 7 km of new walking and cycling paths.

The judges said that “public participation practice at the ‘empower’ end of the spectrum is rare and has lifted the bar on tried-and-true practice and handed decision-making back to the communities …”

NCI also won the Australasian Project of the Year across all categories and the individual Australasia Winner (Planning) award, with the awards being shared with the engineering consultant team from Aurecon NZ.

Early engagement

While the NCI project has put the NZ Transport Agency on the world map, the agency says this is a reflection of a wider engagement strategy that is producing win-win results for it and the communities it works with.

The NZTA Way involves engagement happening as early as possible and being woven throughout a project’s planning and design. This ensures that partner, stakeholder, customer and community feedback influence significant decisions that shape future phases.

Sarah Azam, the agency’s practice manager, communication and engagement, Auckland and Northland, says this uncovers the local issues, social impacts, risks and opportunities that need to be considered as part of the decision-making. “The way we engage is important because it helps to shape the project, programmes and initiatives for end-users as well as mitigate and minimise the impact of our work on people and communities,” she notes.

“Effective engagement prioritises transparency on what is up for negotiation and what is not, so people can have clear expectations about their involvement and understand what they can influence. It uses clear, simple language to build understanding. Engagement aims to build ongoing relationships with people, taking them along a journey and gaining trust.”

The bridge was built early in the project so that it could be used straight away as an exceptional community asset


Community wins

The NCI project is a good example of a community making gains as a result of early engagement.

NCI is a major accelerated project brought forward by the government and has the potential to transform transport choices on one of New Zealand’s busiest corridors and one of the country’s fastest-growing industrial areas. More than 120,000 cars a day use SH1 and 50% of morning commuters in this corridor use the Northern Busway.

There are eight diverse suburbs, including many related projects and assets involving Watercare services and more than 10 ha of public land, meaning coordination is crucial. Its success was and is reliant on community support.

Some of the key approaches have included:

  • • Having an engagement voice at the decision-making table
  • • Engagement best-practice values and processes were embedded in everyone’s role
  • • Partnering with Auckland Council and Auckland Transport for all engagement activities so people could hear about a variety of work happening in their area; this avoided ‘silos’
  • • Co-design with mana whenua through face-to-face forums and monthly hui; this included agreeing options for ecological and environmental measures, including stormwater treatment, maintenance and health of streams and waterways, planning regeneration and urban design.

The project’s engagement and communications manager, Aimee Brock, has championed the voice of customers throughout.

Among the results is a revolutionary traffic management approach whereby only four major traffic switches will take place on SH1 over the four-year construction period. Journeys on the motorway will look the same for up to a year at a time. When traffic does have to move, it will only ever be moved as a whole lane, reducing customer confusion, frustration and accidents.

Ms Azam says that one of the measures of success was the unanimous support for the project at the board of inquiry from mana whenua, and support from key stakeholders, including local government, road-user groups, public transport, cycling and environmental groups.

“The changes and inputs as a result of public engagement have been really broad-ranging, from the incorporation of 5 km of walking and cycling options (and detailed plans for those including 12 access points), extending the Northern Busway all the way to Albany, a new busway station at Rosedale, design of on and off-ramps including keeping the Greville Road on-ramp open, and decisions on access including local road improvements such as Caribbean Drive and the Greville Road Intersection which was originally planned to be a roundabout.”

Ongoing contact

The Transport Agency is committed to engaging closely with iwi, key stakeholders, affected property owners and the community throughout the four-year project lifecycle. A recent example of the partnership approach paying off is the Tirohanga Whanui Bridge which was built as a joint initiative with Watercare.

The striking red bridge opened in February to reconnect the community by providing a walking and cycling connection between the East Coast Bays and Albany. It includes a new watermain installed directly underneath the bridge, to help cater for the growing needs of the area over the next 40 years.

The project team developed the bridge and watermain to minimise any disruption to the local community. The artistic design and name (meaning ‘panoramic view’) were developed together with mana whenua, architect Jeff Wells and designers Aurecon, and the bridge was built early in the project so that it could be used straight away as an exceptional community asset.

“There is not one way to plan, organise and undertake engagement, but the benefits of genuine engagement are substantial, ranging from cost and time savings through to delivering the best design outcomes for our customers,” says Ms Azam. “It also leads to increased goodwill and a social licence to operate through challenging construction activities.”

And what of the people who cannot ever be satisfied when a new project gets underway? “We recognise that not everyone will agree with the final outcomes and we can’t give everyone everything they want,” says Ms Azam. “We do, however, have a responsibility to create opportunities for genuine input to aspects which require decision-making, and share how and why decisions are made. We also share with people how their feedback influenced the outcomes, each time we ask for their input.”

Dave MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport and infrastructure issues within New Zealand d.macintyre@xtra.co.nz

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