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Following an early morning blessing along the route, Maori King Tuheitia and Transport Minister Phil Twyford cut a ribbon marking completion of the Huntly section

Partnership shines through the project

Planning and building a four-lane highway through a culturally sensitive area provided many challenges for the team behind the Huntly section of the Waikato Expressway. But a partnership between Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and Waikato-Tainui saw the 15 km four-lane highway open to traffic in March, with all involved in the project, and the travelling public, pleased with the outcome.

Planning for this section of the expressway started early and included iwi involvement from the start – recognising their interest in the protection of their sacred mountain Taupiri, the urupa (burial grounds) on the old State Highway 1 route, and sites of significance along the new route.

Project director Tony Adams was presented with a small carved pouwhenua from Waikato-Tainui at the completion event

There were various routes discussed in the mid to late 1990s, and Waikato-Tainui’s ‘conditional non-opposition’ for the route taking SH1 east of Huntly, over the Taupiri Range and across lowlands and streams, came in 2014. The fact it was designated and consented without going to a court room earned the project and consultants Bloxam, Burnett and Olliver top honours at the NZ Planning Institute (NZPI) Awards in 2015.

It was summed up by then-Transport Agency regional director Harry Wilson: “Over many years we have built a strong partnership with Waikato-Tainui and this relationship is at the heart of these awards and the work we do in the Waikato.”

Cultural expectations

A tangata whenua working group, made up of local marae and other affected iwi groups, was formed for the project in 2011 and a mitigation plan laying out cultural expectations around the project was signed by Waikato-Tainui, the working group and Waka Kotahi in 2015.

The working group was involved in engagement of kaiarahi – a guardian role representing iwi interests onsite, from overseeing earthworks to cultural inductions for new employees. Kaitiaki (custodians) were also hired from local marae to watch over earthworks, especially when stripping topsoil.

Protocols to deal with finds worked well when koiwi (pre-European bones) and other items were found.

A key component of the cultural mitigation works was the development of a cultural symbolism plan, identifying important sites which have been marked with massive pou (posts) and other artwork. Two former paa sites just off the main route have been symbolically reinterpreted with pou, palisades and gateways, and arrangements are underway to return the land to iwi ownership. All the sites, apart from the pou at the Taupiri summit, can be accessed by pedestrians for a closer look.

“The collaboration between Crown and iwi has been a feature of this project,” says Rukumoana Schaafhausen, chair of Waikato-Tainui’s governing body Te Arataura. “The cultural symbolism art and reborn paa sites are enduring examples of what can be achieved when we work together.”

Construction challenges

The Huntly section was no easy build – it takes SH1 traffic across nine bridges and over some very challenging terrain, with initially limited access. The contract was awarded to a joint venture between Fulton Hogan and HEB and work on the $384 million project began in the summer of 2015/16.

About 3.5 million cu m of earth needed to be moved and the first two summer seasons were wetter than usual. A 57 m cutting was needed to reduce the gradient at the Taupiri summit. Moving 1.3 million cu m of earth and rock required some big gear, including a 180 tonne digger that could hold 25 tonnes of earth with each bite. The project website www.nzta.govt.nz/huntly has time-lapse photography showing progress as the summit skyline changed over two years.

The 57 m cutting at the Taupiri summit, to lessen the gradient over the range, saw 1.3 million cu m of material moved

Cut material was used to fill some of the steep ravines, which needed 36 culverts ranging in length from 13 m to 130 m. The first stream crossing at Mangawara Stream was a temporary bridge to get gear on to the site from the south. The biggest bridge – at the Northern Interchange – is 80 m long and takes traffic over the North Island Main Trunk railway line and an off-ramp to Huntly. It is future-proofed so another railway line can be added if needed.

There were 3500 people inducted onto the site over five years, peaking at roughly 250 people working onsite, and 5000 people involved in the delivery of the job. Joint venture project director Tony Adams is proud of their safety record – there were no serious-harm injuries in over 2.4 million man-hours on the ground.

The Huntly section of the expressway is all HiLab pavement design which harnesses the strength of rocks compacted and cemented together to produce a strong, long-lasting road surface. Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency has adopted the design on other recent expressway sections.

The first layer of rock –the sub-base – consists of large graded 65 mm rock, mixed and compacted with fine gravel, sand and cement. The second rock layer – the base course – comprises smaller 40 mm rock mixed and compacted with gravel, sand and cement. The surface is then sprayed with bitumen and a fine stone chip applied, sealing the pavement layers from the weather before the final asphalt is laid.

A focus on ecology

A highlight of the Huntly project has been its focus on ecology – leaving the area in better shape for flora and fauna. Pest control, wetland creation, 1.3 million native plants in the ground, fish relocated and habitat improved – they are all benefits from the Huntly project.

The route borders a 650 ha bushland, which had struggled for years against a tide of goats and possums, while other predators like stoats and rats had hit the bird population. More than 1400 goats have been removed from the bush and surrounding farmland – and many site staff have become skilled makers of goat curries!

With possum, rat and stoat numbers slashed, the bush is showing good signs of recovery, and native bird numbers are climbing.

A royal spoonbill has been a visitor at the new wetland at Lake Kimihia

Wildlife also seem to appreciate the new 4 ha wetland at the southern end of Lake Kimihia. A haven for waterbirds and native plants, it’s a big improvement on the degraded swamp area which had been grazed by stock over many years. Recent visitors to the wetland have included a white heron and a royal spoonbill.

Willows have been sprayed at adjoining Lake Kimihia and native plants established. Further south, a surprise find of black mudfish in a drain has seen the habitat upgraded with fencing and planting.

All up, the project will conduct 10 years of intensive pest control. “The area has been left in better shape, with the intensive ecology work paying big dividends for the surrounding wetlands, bush, wildlife, birds and plants,” says Tony Adams.

Opening celebrations

Completion events at Huntly ran over two days in mid-February, with Waikato-Tainui leading a well-attended early morning blessing, followed by a ribbon-cutting and stakeholder lunch. The Maori King Tuheitia and Transport Minister Phil Twyford led the way in a ceremony that reflected the project’s Crown-iwi partnership.

Phil Twyford says the Waikato Expressway is a key driver of growth in the region. “This section [Huntly] will improve safety and help grow the local economy by improving the link for businesses and tourists between Auckland and Hamilton.”

The ceremony wrapped up with recognition of the joint venture and its relationship with Waikato-Tainui, when a small carved pouwhenua, which had been carried throughout the blessing, was presented to Tony Adams.

Walkers and runners took to the new road the following day as part of the Expressway Classic half-marathon, before the public was invited to walk, cycle or take a free bus ride along the route. The Huntly section opened to traffic on 9 March.

Waka Kotahi acting portfolio delivery manager Jo Wilton says they are thrilled to have the Huntly section of the Waikato Expressway open to traffic. “We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the public since opening the road. This project has been complex and challenging, but also hugely rewarding for all involved.”

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