Whatever happened to the new Auckland Harbour Bridge?

This post is likely to have little relevance to those not from New Zealand.  Don’t worry – the next will be based in the U.S.A.  A consequence of my recent cosmopolitan history. 

For those not from New Zealand, Auckland’s harbour bridge is the main road conduit joining North Auckland and Northland to Auckland’s CBD and the rest of New Zealand. 

The Auckland Harbour Bridge

The Auckland Harbour Bridge

As a large structure in the middle of New Zealand’s largest city, it’s a kiwi landmark.  Equal in stature to the newer Sky Tower and the much older One Tree Hill. 

Auckland Sky Tower

Auckland's Sky Tower

Auckland's One Tree Hill

One Tree Hill in Auckland

The Bridge is about 1 km long, with the highest point of the road 43 m above the Waitemata Harbour.  Despite its landmark status, the Bridge isn’t particularly pretty.  It’s a poor cousin to the Harbour Bridge across the Tasman Sea in Sydney.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Bridge was built in the 1950s, and right from the start short-sighted decisions were made.  The bridge only had four lanes, with no footpath or cycleway, forcing pedestrians and cyclists to board a boat or travel 50 km around the harbour. The Golden Gate Bridge it was not.

Only 10 years later, traffic across the bridge was three times forecast, causing massive traffic jams.  The Japanese came to the rescue with two clip-on lanes on each side.  They were nicknamed the “Nippon Clip-ons”.

The clip-ons now only barely cope with the load of traffic placed on the bridge during rush hour, and the lanes are scarily narrow when being squashed between a bus and a truck on either side.  From this the clip-ons now have structural problems needing constant maintenance.

Recently, Aucklanders have been suggesting many different alternatives to these problems.  These alternatives include a parallel bridge, a new bridge nearby, a tunnel, multiple tunnels, and replacing the bridge altogether.

The decision-making process now has new leaders.  A new National (right-wing) government is in charge, and the current mash of local government in Auckland is being reshaped into a super-city governance structure.  These changes give much more power and decision-making priority to a handful of politicians.  I’m playing the optimist and hoping it leads to more proactive, visionary decisions. It will depend who the players are.

The Transport Minister is still um-ing and ah-ing about whether to build a new crossing.  The latest consultant team to think about the issue recommended four bored tunnels – two 3-lane tunnels for freeway traffic and two for electric trains.  The existing Bridge would carry local traffic and have a cycleway and walkway across it.  All this would cost up to $4.1 billion.

This is a sensible solution, albeit expensive, which will probably prove its undoing.  Given Auckland’s historic short-sightedness, the politicians of the time will probably remove the public transport part and just build one chunky tunnel to lug more cars into and out of the Auckland Isthmus.

But the existing bridge will remain.  Probably without the clip-ons, removed to reduce expense.  Auckland will be stuck with a black skeletal ramp across their very pretty harbour. 

The New Zealand Herald published an alternative last year.  A team of architects and engineers designed an elegant arching structure spanning Waitemata Harbour between Wynyard Pt near the Tank Farm on the waterfront and Onewa Rd in Northcote.

Auckland's New Harbour Bridge

An imaging of Auckland's new Harbour Bridge

It features a giant angled pylon supporting a splay of cables in the shape of a sail.  This radical design reflects, in an abstract-art sort of way, Auckland’s nautical history.  And it looks like an “A” from the side.

It could carry cars, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and possibly even light rail carriages given its lower gradient. 

An added benefit is that this bridge, one and a half times longer than the existing one, would free up prime coastal land.  The sale of this land would pay most of the bridge’s costs.  Westhaven could be restored as a sandy beach for the public. 

It’d be a piece of world-class architecture to frame the Waitemata Harbour and give Auckland an icon to rival the Sydney Harbour bridge.

But soon after the concept was proposed, it died for lack of attention.  This seems to be an incessant problem of Auckland’s politicians, both national and local.  They talk lots about having “vision” and making Auckland a “world-class city”, but in action whatever vision they have is usually frittered on removing beloved public artworks and renovating their offices. 

Even when a good idea is actually adopted, such as Vector Arena, blunders are still made, like hiding the Arena near an industrial sector with no visual prominence from afar. 

Where to from here?  A lot depends on the big political players poised to take an oligarchical hold on Auckland, such as Rodney Hide, John Banks, and Paul Holmes.  If this new Harbour Bridge could capture their imaginations enough to extend their horizons, Auckland could finally get the magnificent bridge structure it deserves, a stunning complement to the Sky Tower above.

But I’m not holding my breath.