Underpass fiasco heats up

Expensive and contentious – the doomed Bayfair underpass.

As D-Day - D for demolition – draws near for the Bayfair underpass, the action group fighting for its retention as part of the new B2B highway development, has floated another design proposal aimed at defusing the fiasco.

The plan surfaced as another public meeting was called to discuss the doomed underpass and find ways to get pedestrians and cyclists safely across Maunganui Road without affecting traffic.

The meeting is set for 5.30pm, Monday, September 23 at Mount Maunganui College. Mayor Greg Brownless says the NZTA has been encouraged to hold a public meeting. “Those efforts have got us nowhere.”

“If you have your NZTA hat on, the demolition of the underpass will proceed next month,” says Phillip Brown, co-chair of the Bayfair Underpass Alliance after a recent meeting with the NZTA in Tauranga.

“That’s the party line, no changes.” Then in a letter this week to a NZTA senior manager in Wellington, the underpass fighting group put up another design option to re-use the existing underpass.

The NZTA has already ruled out using the underpass because an earth embankment, the bridge approach, has to go on top and the underpass wouldn’t cope. “That’s fine,” says Phillip. “So sink load bearing piles either side of the underpass and a structural concrete slab over the top.  The weight of the embankment is taken by the slab and piles.”

The suggestion comes after a Minister of Transport, Phil Twyford, requested consultation between NZTA and the community. But the Bayfair Underpass Alliance which attended the meeting says “consultation” did not happen. “Within minutes we were told sorry, there will be no underpass,” says the Alliance’s Phillip Brown in a letter to the NZTA Wellington manager Andrew Thackwray.

Phillip says any suggested alternatives to the NZTA proposed system of signalized pedestrian crossings were shot down with comments like “my engineers say no.”

Tauranga Labour MP Jan Tinetti also sat in on part of that meeting. She says the NZTA has been hit with brick walls every which way. “It just doesn’t look like it’s going to work - nothing to do with goodwill, they are engineering issues.”

But the MP says she hasn’t accepted there can’t be an underpass. “But there has to be another solution which isn’t signalised road crossings.”

It was also revealed the cost of a new underpass had blown out even further. “To more than $40 million with an upper boundary of $50 million,” says Phillip Brown. “The whole project’s only worth $120 million and 50 meters of underpass is as much as $50 million. That seems extreme.”

The NZTA went through a community consultation on the project between 2008 and 2014. “There was no big community push for an underpass at the time.” And it didn’t re-emerge until 2017 with the Government Policy Statement pressing for cycle lanes and pedestrian ways. “It was like retro-fitting the plans, which is why it was so hard to make the underpass fit and affordable.”

But Phillip Brown says that consultation doesn't take account of needs today and needs in the future. “We should be future-proofing, not looking back to see what people didn't like or need.”