Construction of the Penlink road and bridge link between Whangaparāoa Peninsula and Redvale is due to start towards the end of this year, however questions are being asked around the timeline, which appears to have fallen behind projections, and the cost – with Waka Kotahi/NZ Transport Agency currently having a close look at all its Auckland NZ Upgrade projects.
Whether or not there is enough money to provide a bus service along the route is also in doubt, together with uncertainty about whether two lanes, or four, will be built.
The project is in the hands of Waka Kotahi after the Government included $411m for it in its NZ Upgrade programme.
Waka Kotahi has provided regular updates to the public since last July, but nothing went out between December and the latest update, at the start of this month. Although the transport agency says its newsletters go out “when there is an update to share, not on a set frequency”, it seems that plenty has been happening behind the scenes.
Whangaparāoa MP Mark Mitchell said a red flag went up for him at a select committee meeting in February when Waka Kotahi transport services general manager, Brett Gliddon, said the timeline for constructing Penlink “will be subject to funding and confirmation of the full programme”. There were further statements in that meeting that all NZ Upgrade projects were being reassessed “to ensure the costings are robust, and the projects capable of being executed”.
Last week Transport Minister Michael Wood told Hibiscus Matters that the projects are being reassessed, but that the Government’s commitment to build Penlink is “rock solid”.
“When the NZ Upgrade programme was initiated, some projects were still in the early stages of development,” Minister Wood says. “Following significant work, Waka Kotahi is now completing a baseline exercise to provide certainty around the scope, cost and schedule of each project, including Penlink. We’re also undertaking updated traffic modelling and an in-depth technical assessment to inform the final design and identify the best approach to the potential expansion to four lanes in future. I expect to receive updated advice soon.”
Mr Mitchell says Penlink shouldn’t even be part of this process.
“Penlink was not at an early stage of development,” he says. “They have committed to a start date and funding is allocated. Why reinvent the wheel?”
The Hibiscus & Bays Local Board recently received a confidential update from Waka Kotahi. Local board member and Penlink Now advocate, Janet Fitzgerald, says it left her confident Penlink is definitely going ahead, although it is possible the start of the build may cross over into the beginning of next year.
This month, two construction candidates were shortlisted and must set out how they would deliver the project and what it will cost. A successful bidder will then be chosen. That process is expected to take up to six months – until around October. A timeline on Waka Kotahi’s website shows a contract awarded mid-year.
Labour list MP based in Rodney, Marja Lubeck, shares Mrs Fitzgerald’s certainty that Penlink is “all go”, and has her fingers crossed for construction to start this year.
“Even if there are slight delays with Covid, the main thing is that it is fully funded,” she says. “I have kept a close eye on making sure that commitment remains. What makes people nervous is that it has been promised for decades. But earlier promises were unfunded and this time there is $411m in place that makes all the difference.
It is an eye opener to see the complexity of these big projects. So many things need to happen before a spade can go into the ground. That work is well underway.”
Two lanes or four?
The local board, Penlink Now and Marja Lubeck are among those pushing for a 4-lane road and bridge.
Two lanes include provision for separated walking and cycling but four would also provide a dedicated bus lane, speeding up travel times.
However, Mrs Fitzgerald says Waka Kotahi’s brief to construction companies is for two lanes, future-proofed for four, even though earlier projections showed four lanes could be achieved within the $411m funding envelope.
“Post-Covid, construction costs have soared. But if Waka Kotahi’s investigations prove that four lanes is the best option, they could go to the Minister for more money,” she says.
Minister Wood says any expansion to four lanes should be about public transport, and this is what he asked officials to look at. No decision has yet been made either way.
Buses are key to Government’s support of Penlink. In 2018, Auckland Transport (AT) forecast that peak demand for commuter bus services on the peninsula would double with Penlink and Waka Kotahi says improved public transport services are a big factor in the project’s favour.
However, that bus service could be in doubt.
The Regional Land Transport Plan 2021-31, released in March, is prepared by AT and Auckland Council and outlines the intended programme of transport works. It states that there will need to be a significant funding increase – estimated at $500m over 10 years – to deliver some services. Bus services at risk include the ones via Penlink.
Environmental impacts a key concern
Building Penlink will have a major impact on the environment, including on the sedimentation of the Weiti River, and native bush and wildlife. A green forest gecko – a species that is fully protected – has been found on the Stillwater side of the route. Last September, meetings began between Waka Kotahi and environmental groups including Hibiscus Coast Forest & Bird and Friends of Okura Bush. Forest & Bird’s Pauline Smith says that Waka Kotahi is seeking an environmental award for Penlink. There is a proposal to use an Australian environmental rating system for the project, which Waka Kotahi believes will help “achieve infrastructure sustainability through more environmentally friendly and innovative approaches”. Mrs Smith says one concern for Forest & Bird, and the local board, is that the 23ha stand of native bush (known as Archer’s block), now in Crown ownership, be retained as public reserve. “We accept there will be environmental damage, and mitigation funding will have to be paid. We want it to be spent in this area. We are watching closely,” she says.