The soil has been broken on Waikato's largest roading project.
The scale and symbolism of the $973 million Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway wasn't lost on about 300 people who gathered on farmland near Hamilton's eastern fringe for a sod-turning ceremony on Friday.
Prime Minister John Key, standing on the designated route of the expressway, said the 21.8-kilometre Hamilton section is a major project by any measure and will draw the lion's share of the government's funding of the expressway project.
Once complete, the Hamilton section will cement the safety and travel-time benefits of the 102km-long expressway, he said.
"It's a very important day for Hamilton and the completion of the Waikato Expressway," Key said, adding Hamilton is now one of New Zealand's fastest-growing cities.
Transport Minister Simon Bridges said the Hamilton section is the largest roading project undertaken outside of Auckland.
The expressway will strengthen the link between Auckland and New Zealand's productive heartland.
The expressway is also an economic enabler, as reflected in Tainui Group Holdings' planned $3 billion logistics hub at Ruakura.
"This [Hamilton section] will be a transformational project for the locals, for the region, actually for New Zealand," Bridges said.
Hamilton East MP David Bennett and Prime Minister John Key hold up a Waikato Times poster from 2009 announcing the Government's $2 billion investment into the Waikato Expressway project.
"This is still a rare day when we start what I think is an absolutely nation-building project."
The completed Cambridge and Ngaruawahia sections of the expressway has resulted in significant travel-time benefits, Bridges said, noting both projects were delivered under budget and ahead of schedule.
The challenge for the alliance of Fletcher, Beca, Higgins and Coffey is to deliver the Hamilton section in a similar fashion.
"If you could just be the patriots that you are and shave a hundy million off this, you'd still have $870m to play with," Bridges said.
Waikato Mayor Allan Sanson and Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker said the $2.1 billion expressway project had already generated significant economic benefits, but used their audience with the Prime Minister to advocate for new roading spends.
Both mayors said it makes sense to extend the expressway further south.
The Waikato Expressway is planned to run between the Bombay Hills and south of Cambridge.
Sanson said the four-laned expressway should be extended south to the Piarere junction, where state highways 1 and 29 connect.
"I would suggest, why stop here?" he told the gathering.
Hardaker said construction of the Hamilton section is a milestone moment for the city, but it is time to "get going" on improving the region's connection to Tauranga.
"We've always known it's important to carry the expressway on through to Tauranga. There's never been any commitment beyond Cambridge, but there has been discussion and an understanding that there will be a second stage," she said.
Hardaker said the yet-unfunded Southern Links roading project to the south of Hamilton also has the ability to transform the city and region's economy.
Bridges said a huge amount of detailed work must be done before the Government could commit to enhancing the roading link between Hamilton and Tauranga.
"But there's no question in my view it's something that's got to be worth thinking about and, intuitively, it seems a compelling sort of case," Bridges said.
Waikato MP Lindsay Tisch said about 98km of the expressway project passed through his constituency and he'd witnessed first-hand the economic opportunities generated by the project.
Hamilton East MP David Bennett said the expressway project had been talked about for years but is now on Hamilton's doorstep.
"This project will allow Hamilton to achieve its full potential because it gives us that link to Auckland," Bennett said.
Hamilton section of Waikato Expressway
- $973 million project due to be completed by 2020.
- 21.8km of four-lane, median-divided highway.
- The project will connect to the Ngaruawahia section of the expressway at Lake Road in the north and the Tamahere section in the south.
- Includes 17 bridges, five interchanges and cycling and walking paths.
- The project will use 28,450 cubic metres of concrete, 212km of road markings and 126km of fencing.
- It's estimated the project will require up to 4 million cubic metres of earthworks and 1.3m tonnes of aggregate.
Source: NZ Transport Agency
AARON LEAMAN - Stuff