Waka Kotahi, New Zealand Transport Agency, is becoming a bit of a dirty phrase around Hawke’s Bay of late.
When it looks like the region is slowly being cut off by road from the rest of New Zealand it’s no wonder.
In recent months we have seen:
- Drop-outs limiting the Napier-Taupō Road (State Highway 5) down to one lane.
- Similar subsidence narrowing the Napier-Wairoa Road (State Highway 2).
- “The Saddle Road” linking Hawke’s Bay (via Tararua District) with Manawatū ever since the 2017 closure of the Manawatū Gorge in a constant state of repair
- Several years of upgrades and re-repairs (sometimes re-re-repairs) to State Highway 2 between Napier and Bay View.
Slowing access to our region from the south, north and west (approaching from the east you would likely flood the carburetor.. and the rest of the car.. in the Pacific Ocean.)
Then on the afternoon of Wednesday 24 August it was suddenly announced that travel across the 81 year old Esk River bridge, part of State Highway 2, just north of Bay View, Napier would be reduced to 30km/h from the following Monday (Aug 29) stating the bridge:
“Wasn’t designed to carry the frequency and weights of modern-day trucks and other heavy transport”
81 years ago (1941, for those playing at home) we didn’t have multi-wheeled, thousand-horsepower, 60-tonne trucks hauling cargo across the country.
But in more recent decades we DID have a New Zealand Transport Agency whose job it was to monitor issues like the integrity of state highway bridges and fix them before they became an issue.
From Transmission Gully, to the Waikato Expressway and rebuilding the highway along the Kaikōura coast after the 2016 earthquake there have been lots of roading improvements and developments all around New Zealand.
All except Hawke’s Bay it seems.
“The “temporary” limit will be put in place on Monday and apply until further notice”.” the release said.
Quotation marks around “temporary” give a sense of insincerity, and the fact it’s “until further notice”, with no indication of how long that could actually be don’t fill you with confidence for a quick resolution, or one at all.
Because other wording in the release was quite concerning:
“”While we understand this will be an inconvenience for road users, it is critical everyone complies with the temporary 30km/h speed limit to keep vibrations to a minimum to reduce the impact on the bridge structure and prevent further deterioration.””
30km/h is very slow, considering this is a 100km/hr zone, but it is standard practice and a safer speed for vehicles passing sites where road workers are active.
But saying it’s critical for the hundreds of light and heavy vehicles that travel across the Esk River bridge every day to slow down by over half the regular speed limit there to “reduce the impact on the bridge structure and prevent further deterioration“?
This makes it sound like this bridge, which has done a great, solid, bridgey job over the last 81 years, could now suddenly give way at any minute – Which is extremely concerning!
A Vital Link
It’s concerning because a kilometer or so up the road is one of Hawke’s Bay’s biggest industries, Pan Pac Forest Products, also one of the region’s largest employers, which relies on a fleet of around 100 trucks of different configurations (mainly logging trucks) each crossing the Esk River bridge several times a day carrying thousands of tonnes of products vital for the mill’s operations, as well as the mill site’s staff, who number in the hundreds, commuting to work each day.
But more importantly the bridge is the only sealed route north of Napier towards Wairoa, popular holiday spot Māhia (home of Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1) and Gisborne with a combined population in excess of 60,000.
For the most part if you want to get to Wairoa and Gisborne you have to get there via Napier, SH2 and this bridge.
The North Island’s East Coast region, north of Gisborne is accessible by road from south eastern Bay of Plenty, but it would be a hell of a detour to get to Wairoa that way.
A Long-Standing Problem
Issues with his section of road aren’t new.
For decades the intersection of State Highways 2 and 5 just south of the Esk River has been considered a dangerous spot.
An angled approach for those coming from Taupò limits clear visibility for crossing onto SH2 continuing south towards Napier.
A sandstone hill on the right limits views of north-bound traffic, while the heightened, curved Esk Railway Bridge, which leads onto the troubled river bridge cuts visibility to the northeast to less than 50 meters. Far from ideal when 50 tonne logging trucks stream over it towards the intersection.
There have been numerous crashes at the intersection but, apparently, not enough serious crashes to warrant drastic remediation by Waka Kotahi.
The rail bridge climbs quickly to get over the East Coast railway line and Esk River stopbanks and it is curved – nerve-wracking at the best of times, let alone when you are trying to share the narrow curved bridge with fully loaded 18 wheelers coming the other way.
The bridges are even less than ideal when you are not driving over them.
Cycling over these bridges is dangerous enough sharing the narrow concrete walled spaces with cars and trucks, but especially so just after dawn when crossing the river bridge north-bound faces drivers straight into the rising sun all but cutting off visibility at times.
Walking over the bridges doesn’t even bear thinking about.
This section of road has been like this for decades and successive transport agencies have known about it for decades, but chosen not to fix it.
Now it may be too late.
A Civil Engineering Emergency
Mid-morning on March 8 2018 all non-operstional staff at Pan Pac Forest Products’ Whirinaki site were told to leave as a storm had flooded the neighboring Esk River valley and the water level was getting dangerously high. It was decided that staff should leave before high tide, as the river getting any higher could threaten travel across the Esk River bridge.
Flash forward four years and who will now feel safe or secure crossing this potentially structurally compromised bridge the next time there is significant rainfall in the nearby hills?
Recent severe weather events have proven that Napier’s infrastructure is not up to handling even current standards. It’s not too surprising sadly though, given years of successive council administrations being hell-bent on keeping rates down at the expense of repairing and replacing their beloved city “assets”, turned major liabilities.
But when it comes to roads Hawke’s Bay pays its’ share.
Fuel tax, income tax, Goods and Services Tax.
Hawke’s Bay truck owners pay Road User Charges.
So why doesn’t Hawke’s Bay get a fair return on our regional roading infrastructure for the taxes and charges we pay for using it?
The numerous drop-outs on our under-invested high country regional highways is bad enough. Losing such a crucial bridge will literally be the straw that breaks State Highway 2.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A few years ago there was word that the SH5/2 intersection was going to get a massive upgrade and redevelopment.
It never occurred.
With such a dire situation now upon this section of road why not revisit those plans and make then a reality now?
“Roads of National Significance” were a big deal under the last National government when the Waikato Expressway section of State Highway 1 was redeveloped.
Surely State Highway 2 must be the nation’s second most significant road by numerical order at the very least.
I believe the canceled concept involved an over/under pass for access to / from SH 5 and one big bridge spanning both the rail line and Esk River, rather than the current two inferior smaller bridges.
Lining this new, longer bridge up with matching bends that already exist north and south of the river would make the section of road straighter and give motorists better, safer vision along this area.
The slight change of angle would also lessen the chance of sunstrike for those traveling north across the bridge as the sun rises.
This realignment could be well timed, as a section of land on the seaward side of the current bridge, where this new bigger bridge would ideally go happens to currently be for sale!
Pedestrian / cycling lanes on this new bridge would also be extremely advantageous.
Having a bigger, better, newer bridge will also go some way to future proofing this section of road to imminent climate change, sea level rise (Hawke Bay is only few hundred meters downstream of the current bridge) and the ever-present threat of flooding from upstream and the Hikurangi Subduction Zone off the east coast of the North Island
As it currently (barely, according to Waka Kotahi) stands the Esk River bridge won’t withstand too many more trucks going faster than the suburban speed limit over it.
That is simply not good enough.
Rebuild the Bridge and Get Over It
I am a passionate advocate for all things Hawke’s Bay.
I’ve seen my region ignored and undermined for years and I’ve been writing about it, trying to get these inequalities fixed for almost ten years now.
This is no different.
Despite forecasts of doom, gloom and constant belittling Hawke’s Bay has surged ahead, launched itself into space and prospered in recent years to become the fastest growing and happiest region in New Zealand.
It’s just so sad that a government agency like Waka Kotahi lags so far behind in recognizing regions like Hawke’s Bay need far better roads and transport infrastructure than what they have.
If it really is critical that traffic traversing the Esk River bridge must now travel over it at 30km per hour to prevent further deterioration of the structure as Waka Kotahi said in their statement, then we can assume it’s too late and the bridge is doomed.
State Highway 2 is a nationally significant road.
To allow such a major, important structural part of it to degrade to this level is inexcusable.
This is a Civil Engineering Emergency.
Hawke’s Bay deserves better!
Footnote (Nov 2022):
Since writing this piece Waka Kotahi has limited the speed and weight limits on YET ANOTHER Hawke’s Bay State Highway bridge!
The 70-year-old State Highway 50 bridge that crosses the Ngaruroro River at Fernhill, Hastings, like the Esk River bridge, suddenly now no longer has the capacity to maintain current heavy traffic demands.
This really is ludicrous!