The pressure to get Transmission Gully open cannot be left to the Easter holidays, a new date needs to be set and made known to the public.
Last week Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency announced the $1.25 billion motorway out of Wellington wasn’t going to open by Christmas.
Chairman Sir Brian Roche then told a select committee Waka Kotahi didn’t have a clear understanding of when the road will open, but that they wanted it to happen as soon as possible.
The reluctance to commit to yet another opening date for the road is understandable. There is reputational damage done every time a date is missed and Transmission Gully becomes the butt of jokes.
But it’s a matter of transparency and Wellingtonians shouldn’t be comfortable with the way Waka Kotahi has recently shied away from telling them what the opening date actually is.
In November the agency issued a press release saying it was “pushing hard” for the road to open as soon as possible and hoped that it would be by Christmas.
Transport services general manager Brett Gliddon said he expected to announce in mid-December whether the road would be open for the holidays or not.
Porirua Chamber of Commerce, which said at the time the city deserved certainty, called on Waka Kotahi to “#ReleaseTheDate”.
It turns out there was a very clear date indeed set behind the scenes, December 17, we just didn’t really know about it.
And it wasn’t until Roche told the Transport and Infrastructure select committee last week that with effect from December 17 Waka Kotahi would “apply” the contract, that it became clear just how significant this date was.
It was an extension from the last publicly-committed-to opening date of September 27 and was to allow time to determine how much of the road’s delay was due to the Delta outbreak.
That interim agreement has now expired and with the road still not open and no other agreement in place, the road’s builder is now liable for more than $250,000 per day in liquidated damages as if the previous opening date of September 27 had not been achieved.
The road still isn’t open because the builder has run out of time to complete consent, safety and quality assurance tasks.
Concerns were raised about the ability for these to be completed on time even before the latest Covid-19 outbreak. So, it seems astounding that any party involved in this disaster of a Public Private Partnership really thought they were going to get them all signed off by Christmas.
Furthermore, the Herald has revealed a significant factor behind the road’s delayed opening was flawed chipseal on the southbound lane.
Extensive parts of the road have evidence of “flushing” – a phenomenon caused by bitumen seeping up through a layer of chipseal on top of it, according to two inspection reports obtained under the Official Information Act.
Because of this, the builder has not been able to satisfy an independent reviewer with regards to tests relating to the road’s surface.
It’s actually normal for some chips to come loose from a road – this is usually remediated when traffic begins to flow, as the weight of cars and trucks depresses the chips into the road.
Even Gliddon told the select committee it was not unusual to manage the bedding-in of bitumen when a road with chipseal opened.
National’s new transport spokesman Simeon Brown has started raising questions whether Transmission Gully is just being held up by red tape and bureaucracy.
A police vehicle was actually escorted along Transmission Gully last week as an alternativeto State Highway 59, the current main route into Wellington, which was blocked in both directions by a slip.
Those in the vehicle had been deployed to assist with crowd management at the Freedom and Rights Coalition protest against Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates.
Brown said it showed the road was obviously in a driveable condition so if it was good enough for police, then surely it was good enough for the public too.
One police car is very different from the 25,000 vehicles which are expected to be on the road every day when it opens.
Furthermore, the chipseal was laid outside of the usual season so premature flushing is more of a significant issue.
Waka Kotahi is stuck weighing up whether the flushing can be managed with mitigation measures once the road opens, without having to close it again for remediation – that really would be the cherry on top.
Commercial negotiations over the fallout from this year’s lockdown are also continuing.
But just because the blow has been delivered that the road won’t open in time for Christmas doesn’t mean we should have to wait for the next significant holiday, Easter, to put the pressure on.
We need to know what the new opening date is in the New Year.
• Senior Wellington journalist Georgina Campbell’s fortnightly column looks closely at issues in the capital.
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