The Waikato Expressway Project: Collaboration for a Common Goal

The Waikato Expressway Project: Collaboration for a Common Goal

The Waikato Expressway is a key highway project the New Zealand Government identified as one of the Roads of National Significance in 2009. The Expressway runs from the top of the Bombay Hills in the north through to just south of Cambridge and will provide a key link for the Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty “Golden Triangle” which includes nearly half the country’s population and produces 40 per cent of GDP.


When complete, this 102km continuous divided four-lane highway will allow for a safer, quicker way to get freight and people through New Zealand’s upper North Island.


The Expressway is being built in several sections, with some already completed, and will reduce travel times for through traffic by up to 35 minutes. 


The New Zealand Transport Agency is responsible for the delivery of the $2.1 billion project, with Peter Simcock, the project services manager, in charge of managing the operations from the Transport Agency’s office in Hamilton.


Like any major infrastructure project, challenges have been encountered. But with constant, strong collaboration the agency has with contractors, workers, the surrounding community and Maori,  the completed sections of the Waikato Expressway have thus far been on time or early, and on or under budget.


“A key to that has been our extensive consultation processes,” said Simcock. “We have a no-surprises policy with our stakeholders and the public, and I believe the project overall enjoys good community support because we have been consulting with them all the way along.’’

The consultation process has included a combination of site visits, individual meetings, newsletters and public information days, plus strong website backup.


“We have also set up a Visitor Centre at the Cambridge section project site office where people can call in to view graphics, maps, a DVD, posters, pick up an information sheet and ask questions. It’s also been popular with group bookings.’’


Te Rapa section – Fulton Hogan


The Te Rapa section of the Waikato Expressway opened on 3 December, 2012. The 8km stretch of road was constructed by Fulton Hogan, and came in at around $194 million. Harry Wilson, the Transport Agency’s Waikato-Bay of Plenty regional director, attributed the ahead-of-schedule delivery to the collaboration within the Te Rapa Alliance, which included the agency, Opus International Consultants and Fulton Hogan.


“Procuring the Te Rapa section through a competitive alliance has delivered a first-class roading project for all stakeholders,” said Peter Murphy, the Transport Agency’s project manager for the Te Rapa section.


“The Te Rapa Alliance team has been able to successfully manage the scale and complexity of this project while working within the uncertainty of unresolved designation and property procurement matters. The team delivered the project at least 12 months earlier than could have been achieved through more traditional procurement methods.” 


In total 300,000 square metres of road and six bridges were constructed, including the 150m long curved steel and concrete composite bridge over the North Island Main Trunk railway line. This effort took enormous resources, including 25,000 tonnes of concrete and 2200 tonnes of reinforcing steel to build the bridges, 6000 metres of piles for the bridge foundations and 7000 square metres of anti-graffiti paint.


The section starts in the northwest corner of Hamilton City and extends into the Waikato district. It connects with the completed Ngaruawahia section to the north.


Ngaruawahia section – Fletcher Construction


The Ngaruawahia section of the Waikato Expressway opened on 16 December, 2013. The 12.3km project cost around $200 million, nearly $50 million under original estimates. Fletcher Construction was responsible for the 4-lane road, which runs from Taupiri in the north, crossing flat farmland and the Waikato River before connecting with the completed Te Rapa section.


“The project was delivered using a Design and Construct model,” said Mercedes Santos, the Transport Agency’s project manager for the section. “This model provides greater flexibility to the contractor and enabled innovation and consequent cost savings.


“The health and safety record was a highlight of the project with very few incidents and those were of a minor nature. The agency takes health and safety on site very seriously, and so we take great pride when our projects are delivered in safe work environments.”


Construction of the Ngaruawahia Section began in September of 2011 and included seven bridges, six of which are overbridges and a new 142-metre bridge over the Waikato River.


Santos expressed her gratitude for Fletcher Construction’s hard work on the project: “With their expertise and willingness to go the extra mile, we have shaved $50 million off the estimated cost and got the road open before Christmas.’’


Cambridge section – HEB Construction


Construction began on the Cambridge section of the Waikato Expressway in September 2013    and the 16km stretch has an estimated cost of around $230 million. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2016. HEB Construction is the contractor on the project.


Around 300 to 350 staff and subcontractors are on site at peak and to date 650,000 cubic metres of earth has been moved.   There are eight bridges to be constructed in this stretch of the Expressway and on completion the Cambridge section will contain about 360,000 newly-planted trees. This section is predicted to reduce traffic through the picturesque rural town of Cambridge by up to 10,000 vehicles a day.


As the longest Expressway section that has been worked on to date, there have been several challenges for HEB Construction and the Transport Agency to overcome. One of the eight bridges is over the Karapiro Gully and is one of the biggest structures built in the region in recent times. The bridge is 200 metres long and 40 metres above the bed of the gully, with piles between 40 and 60 metres deep.


“There have also been, and will continue to be, a number of temporary road closures and diversion routes that change through the course of the project development,” said  Peter Simcock, Project Services Manager at the Transport Agency.


HEB Construction’s contractor representative Gary Budden has said that their good progress thus far wouldn’t have been possible without the goodwill of nearby residents and travellers.


“We’ve established a haul road along the site, closed some roads, put up temporary traffic signals, created a diversion road, and moved a lot of earth … and right through it all the people have been wonderful,” Budden said. “I think they really ‘get’ what we are doing here and what will be achieved.”


The Cambridge section of the Waikato Expressway starts south of the existing Tamahere interchange and runs for 16km, ending just south of Cambridge where it connects with the existing SH1.


Rangiriri section – Fletcher Construction


The Rangiriri section is also currently under construction. Work on this 4.8km project is scheduled for completion in 2016. The estimated cost of this section is $106 million; Fletcher Construction is the main contractor.


When complete, the section will connect the Longswamp and Ohinewai sections of the Expressway and improve connectivity between Auckland and Huntly and further south. The project is being delivered using an Early Contractor Involvement model (ECI), which allows for the contractor to be involved in the design phase and ensures designs developed are robust, constructible and are appropriately staged.


During the last summer season, more than 75,000 cubic metres of earth was moved each month. Like the other sections of the Waikato Expressway, bridges are a large part of the construction work. Current efforts on the project include stabilised earth-retaining walls at the interchange bridges and structural work at the Rangiriri bridge. The Expressway route is away from the current SH1 alignment which cuts through the historic Rangiriri village – scene of a fierce battle between Maori and colonial troops in 1863.

“The Rangiriri project has provided plenty of challenges,” said Peter Murphy, the Transport Agency’s project manager for this section. “We are constructing a new expressway through an area of national historic and cultural significance. Working with a good team and taking the time to thoroughly engage with all our stakeholders will reward us with a project that we can all be proud of.”


Other challenges have included poor ground conditions and the quality of natural materials. The project crosses some very low-lying areas near the Waikato River. Significant ground improvement was required in order to support the embankment. The soils are of a very poor nature, and have been quite challenging for the contractors to work with.


Fletcher Construction


Fletcher Construction is the main contractor on the Rangiriri section of the Waikato Expressway project, and was the main contractor on the Ngaruawahia section, which opened last December. The Rangiriri project is currently 18 months into a 42-month contract.


All site enabling, ground improvement - including wick drains and stone columns, gully undercut, cross carriageway drainage and structural foundations - are complete. The end of 2014 and beginning of 2015 will be a large earthworks season.


“The earthworks season in the Waikato, as a general rule of thumb, is 100 working days due to the wet weather and conditions needing to be amenable for drying fill back to optimum moisture. The upcoming season is being elongated with the use of imported aggregates and field stabilisation through the addition of lime and cement together in order to provide confidence that the required productivity targets are being meet to achieve programme certainty,” said Charles Stokes, project manager at Fletcher Construction.


Because of the wet season, Fletcher has approximately 60 personnel on the site through winter. The project team consists of around 20 staff (administration, management and engineers), and workers in the field. The summer season will have around 150 workers on site.


Besides having to deal with the elements and the seasons, the project “has a complex geology from the Waikato River flood plains to the south and highly variable materials in the rolling topography to the north of the project site,” said Stokes. The land area along the site contains sensitive airfall ash, flood-deposited pumice and silts derived from the Taupo volcanic region.


This combination has made bulk earthworks challenging. However, with the help of its sister company Winstone Laboratory, Fletcher Construction has been able to implement a testing regime to help ensure that quality is achieved while still allowing productivity to be left unimpeded.


Another challenge Fletcher Construction has contended with and overcome on the Rangiriri section was the change of design during construction. “The technical landscape was evolving following on from lessons learnt in the recent Canterbury earthquakes,” said Stokes. “Our in-house technical design capability working alongside our design consultant MWH was able to navigate through some complex issues ensuring a robust solution was realised.” This included installing a considerable amount of stone column ground improvements.


Before Fletcher Construction was awarded the contract for the Rangiriri section, Stokes was involved on the project as a Contractors representative. The Transport Agency used the Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) model to develop the plans for the section.


“Part of this role involved ensuring that the technical knowledge within our organisation was fully harnessed to ensure that the design solution adopted was efficient and mirrored the intended construction methodology that would be used during the construction phase,” Stokes said.


The goal of the ECI model was to ensure that the consents and land take matched the construction requirements in terms of access points to and from the site and environment controls. The contractor, designer, planner, client and Waikato Tainui (a significant stakeholder), were part of the project team. The team ensured that the design was robust, buildable and that the planning consents mirrored the construction methodology.


Fletcher Construction’s involvement on the Waikato Expressway has done nothing but good things for the company.


“Our reputation has been enhanced as a company that is true to our values of being ‘Good to work with, Good to work for, and Good to own’,” commented Stokes. “The Waikato Region is going through a period of considerable infrastructure and commercial investment and we are well placed to leverage our skills and experience following on from the successful completion of the Ngaruawahia section and subsequently this project.”


Upcoming work – Huntly, Hamilton and Longswamp sections


The Huntly section of the Waikato Expressway is in the physical works procurement stage,  and will soon go to tender for detailed design and construction. The 15.4km project has a target contract award of April 2015 and opening date of 2019.  The estimated cost is around $470 million.


The section passes to the east side of the Huntly township and through the Taupiri Range, connecting to the completed Ngaruawahia section at Gordonton Road. It is expected to reduce traffic congestion and improve safety within the Huntly and Taupiri townships by significantly reducing through traffic.


The Hamilton section is in the secondary investigation and specimen design stage, with consenting processes under way. The 21.8km road – the longest stretch on the Expressway – has a target opening date of 2019 and is estimated at $790 million. It meets with the Ngaruawahia section in the north, runs to the east of Hamilton, and will connect to the existing Tamahere interchange just south of Hamilton. Like the Huntly section, the Hamilton section is expected to reduce traffic congestion and improve safety on the local road network by reducing through traffic.


The 5.9km  Longswamp section is currently in the secondary investigation stage and has a target completion date of 2018. The $70 million project will link the already completed Mercer section to the north with the Rangiriri section to the south.


Collaboration with  local Maori


Maori are New Zealand’s indigenous people and they have strong cultural ties to the land. With a project of this magnitude, many Maori in the region are keenly interested in how projects will impact on land and waterways.


“There are areas along the length of the Expressway project, particularly around Rangiriri and Huntly, where there are sites sacred to Maori.  As a consequence they have a very strong interest in the development of our projects and are keen to contribute in any way in order to ensure that the completed projects acknowledge the sacred nature of the sites,” said Simcock.


To ensure that Maori interests are satisfactorily addressed, the Transport Agency engages closely with Waikato-Tainui, the main tribe in the region, and their representatives in the areas of the projects, and involves them throughout the investigation, design and construction phases of the projects.


Maori culture and custom have contributed to the projects’ landscaping designs. Wood carvings and story boards are erected at strategic locations along the Expressway to share Maori history.  Maori are keenly interested in ensuring the natural vegetation is retained and, where possible, extended. They also have a guardianship role when it comes to the protection of the surrounding waterways.


“All of the streams crossed by the Expressway flow into the Waikato River, and we have to comply with requirements to ensure that runoff from the Expressway does not contaminate any of those waterways,” commented Simcock.


The Transport Agency has strengthened its relationship with Maori through the Expressway project. And because of the project’s length that has meant involving various sub-tribes or iwi.


That sort of collaboration and consultation has been a feature of Expressway sections completed or under way, and is already being woven into the remaining three sections as they come on stream.


“With a project of this size a lot of effort goes into designation, investigation and design, getting consents, tendering etc and then getting on with the build. But if you have people on board and involved every aspect is made easier,” Simcock said.