Peter James Quinn

One Ring to Rule Them All

As State Highway 1 passes through the heart of Auckland, traffic banks up and clogs the nation’s busiest arterial. A ring route which will circumvent the CBD and link all four cities of the isthmus is being constructed as a heart bypass, but can the patient be saved?

Written by       Photographed by Peter James Quinn

Maurice milisi wrestles the thick hose of a concrete pump down through a honeycomb of reinforcing steel. His arms are caked with dried cement. His gear—clothes, boots, safety vest, lifejacket (yes, lifejacket)—wears the scars of weeks, months, of industrial labour. Behind him, the tip of the boom sways with each tug of the hose. Beyond the safety rails, 25 metres or more below, a pump vehicle and concrete truck stand at the head of a narrow, purpose-built jetty. An engine idles. The languid waters of the Manukau cast back a diffuse pearl light.

Milisi is the foreman of Pier Six, one of seven massive double- columned structures that, when linked up, will support a new 645- metre-long, four-lane motorway across Auckland’s Manukau Harbour. The crossing, built cheek-by-jowl with the existing Mangere bridge, which links northern and western suburbs with the city’s airport, is part of a larger project known as the Western Ring Route—an ambitious 48-km stretch of motorway that taps State Highway 1 south of Auckland and loops traffic west of the city, reintroducing it to State Highway 1 well north of the Harbour Bridge. When finished, the Ring Route will link all four cities on the isthmus­ Auckland, Waitakere, North Shore and Manukau. The Government considers the Ring Route critical to the country’s economic transforma­tion and has concocted a long list of benefits it will bring to everyone from commuters to port managers. As to the harbour crossing itself, almost everyone agrees that it would be a fine thing if it were to open in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Dan Noble and Johny Hope pour concrete on Pier 2 of the Manukau Harbour Crossing. When completed, the bridge will contain around 26,000 tonnes of concrete and 1000 tonnes of steel on foundations that have been engineered to carry up to 500 vehicles at any one time—as well as the possibility of a future low-level rail.
Dan Noble and Johny Hope pour concrete on Pier 2 of the Manukau Harbour Crossing. When completed, the bridge will contain around 26,000 tonnes of concrete and 1000 tonnes of steel on foundations that have been engineered to carry up to 500 vehicles at any one time—as well as the possibility of a future low-level rail.

Such lofty thoughts are for oth­ers. Milisi is fully occupied with the happenings on Pier Six itself, and with good reason. The bridge build­ers, Fletcher Construction, Beca Infrastructure and Higgins, opted for one of the most dramatic ways of putting up a bridge in the repertoire. Known as balanced-cantilever con­struction, it involves building out the road superstructure from the top of each pier in both directions at once, so that the whole edifice remains as steady as a trapeze artist until each creeping section meets its neighbour and is fixed in place.

Before the spectacular aerial ballet could begin, one or two preliminary matters needed attending to. First, a series of piles had to be sunk into rock, up to 50 m beneath the soft seabed. The piles were then capped and ringed with watertight boxes, called cofferdams, to keep the tide at bay. Pier columns were poured on those foundations and topped off with 300-tonne pre-cast pier tables.

The next part, building the canti­lever spans themselves, is the job of specialised pieces of equipment known as form travellers. Resembling giant mechanical lobsters, these sit on rails at either end of the pier tables and provide a moveable framework for fabricating new sections. They were designed in Malaysia and built in China specifically for the Manukau Harbour Crossing project.

“A few more concrete pours and we’ll be able to shake hands,” says Milisi, looking to fellow workers across 30 m of void.

Over on Pier Two, the travel­ler has been launched into position and steel is being tied off for a new pour—the eighth of eleven segments north and south. Foreman Chris Murphy explains the procedure, the numbers catching in his heavy Irish brogue. First the traveller—essen­tially a 120-tonne sliding mould—is inched out on pre-stressed rails by powerful jacks in a laborious proc­ess taking one and a half hours. The reinforcing steel is then readied, con­crete is poured, the structure is re-stressed and the rails are removed.

“The bridge is at its most vulner­able now,” says Murphy. “You can set a dumpy level and see it rise and fall with the wind and temperature change.” He tells me that eventually a load of 30,000 tonnes will be transferred back to the piers beneath our feet.

Whether reinforced concrete was used to make a building or a bridge, the same engineering principles ap­plied, construction manager Alex Parfitt had told me. The only dif­ference was the way the parts fitted together. Nevertheless, the Manukau Harbour Crossing project is marked by a surprising amount of innova­tion, from the large dome that serves as recreation central for the site’s 240 workers to the one page contract that binds the alliance partners—Fletcher Construction, designer Beca Infra­structure, Palmerston North-base roading specialist Higgins and the New Zealand Transport Agency. Positioning of graders and pavers is controlled by satellite and inte­grated with laser-light measurement of height—a first for New Zealand. Even the concrete itself, which con­tains a high proportion of fly ash and cement, is a special formulation.

Pier foreman Chris Murphy throws a line to a waterlogged Johny Hope during a simulated rescue beneath the Mangere Bridge project. The monthly safety drill usually goes unannounced until a horn sounds three blasts, making it more authentic for workers. Candidates to be rescued are arbitrarily selected from the crew, says Murphy, “based on who pissed me off the most that month”.
Pier foreman Chris Murphy throws a line to a waterlogged Johny Hope during a simulated rescue beneath the Mangere Bridge project. The monthly safety drill usually goes unannounced until a horn sounds three blasts, making it more authentic for workers. Candidates to be rescued are arbitrarily selected from the crew, says Murphy, “based on who pissed me off the most that month”.
Street maps have for years carried the promise of such a thing, their pages showing a ghostly route...striking out through open country on a notional adventure of its own...
Taking a short break between concrete pours to catch up on txts, Conset Construction concrete worker Mark Faaee finds a comfortable spot on a flat-deck to put his feet up. Like bees to a honeypot, 240 workers and up to 30 teams of contractors swarm through the Dome (opposite)—the mess-hall for the Manukau Harbour Crossing site.

One of the hothouses of innova­tion is an unassuming shed in the pre-cast yard at the southern end of the bridge. It is the realm of engineer Geoff Peel, who has made a name for himself as “the inventor”. Peel was away, but inside the shed, pinned to the wall, was evidence of a rest­less mind—the sketch of a proposed bridge across the Waitemata Har­bour, with a structural section at one end which soared skyward in imita­tion of a waka’s carved stern-post.

I learned that for the Manukau project Peel invented a pile cutter to do underwater work previously car­ried out by divers. As a result, much time and money was saved. There was even talk of patenting the device, though Parfitt doubted the practi­cality of such a move. “It is not our core competency to hold intellectual property. We are a construction company.” Besides, he said, merely replicating a design isn’t enough. You need the right people, the right cor­porate culture. “Innovation comes from so many places here. It comes from teamwork and hard work.”

Nor is the alliance averse to importing innovation where it can make a difference. A case in point is Higgins’ KMA 200 pugmill. The only one of its kind in the Southern hemisphere, the German-designed pugmill is the road-builders’ cake mixer. Here, it is employed to create an unconventional roading mixture called cement-treated basecourse (CTB). This basecourse is trucked while still wet and fed into the hopper of a paver for laying. Once com­pacted, it forms a thick, strong base for the final road surface—technical­ly, the “pavement”. The addition of concrete to the aggregate means less premium hot-mix asphalt is needed as a covering layer. Even so, the project will swallow 35,000 tonnes of structural asphalt and 10,000 tonnes of surfacing asphalt. The previous technique involved spreading the roading materials, then hoeing in the additives and grading the mixture into shape. Not only is CTB quicker and cheaper, it makes consistency easier to achieve.

[Chapter Break]

If his writing are anything to go by, Herodotus, the “father” of history, would have looked on the pugmill with interest. He ranked the stone-paved road made to carry the blocks for the Great Pyramid as “a work not much inferior to the pyramid itself”. Since then, a vener­able line of engineers have laboured to perfect the science of the “Made Way”, among them the 19th century Scot John Loudon McAdam, who realised that when it came to making durable roads, thickness was unim­portant. What mattered was keeping the ground dry.

“It is the native soil which really supports the weight of traffic,” he wrote. “While it is preserved in a dry state it will carry any weight without sinking.” This he set about ensuring with drains, a meticulous camber and an impervious covering of compacted stones—a “macadamised” surface. Years later, when suction from fast-moving rubber-tyred vehicles started to play havoc with McAdam’s pave­ments, they were superseded by con­crete and by various concoctions of bitumen, rock-asphalt, sand-asphalt, heavy tar and sand—“tarmac”.

McAdam’s emphasis on native soil would not find favour these days, but waterproofing, drainage and a durable surface are still crucial to creating that characteristic symbol of industrial society, the all-weather road.

It is also a symbol abounding in ironies and contradictions. Adolf Hitler, the force behind the German motorway system—still the world’s third-largest after those of the Unit­ed States and China—did not have a driver’s licence. His autobahn system was built for the cars of the people, the “Volkswagen”, but they were largely unaffordable at the time, and few found their way onto the roads.

Even a brief time in the company of New Zealand’s road builders would be enough to convince any­one of their skills. But they are not wedded to motorways. They could equally, and no doubt just as cheer­fully, construct aerial pathways for bicycles, or suspended tracks for high-speed electric trains or inland canals. In the end, roads are social choices, not engineering ones.

Harbour Cross­ing is no nine-to-five outfit. Indeed, some jobs are best done when the sun goes down—or, to be more accurate, when traffic on existing roads eases. This is the case, for example, when you want to park an the middle of a busy thoroughfare and swing unwieldy lengths of in­frastructure about.

Late one Sunday night, I fronted up to see what such a thing involved. The centre of operations was on Hugh Watt Drive, a couple of kilo­metres northwest of the new bridge. The mission was to set in place the main section of a new footbridge spanning the widened six-lane road to replace the old one whose concrete columns were now in the way. The new bridge was to be something of an architectural statement—indeed, I was repeatedly to come across this impulse to turn infrastructure into art. A white 40-metre-high pylon had already been erected, at an ar­resting 10-degree angle, and from its tip steel cables would eventually be run out and tensioned to support the deck of the bridge. Since go­ing up, the towering pylon had for much of the time supported itself with nothing but a ring of bolts at its base—such is the faith of engi­neers in mathematics. Opposite the pylon, enclosed in concrete barriers between lanes of traffic, lay the new 45-metre-long bridge span.


I joined a crowd of locals on the old bridge to take in the scene. One minute both north- and southbound traffic flowed normally and the next, nothing. It was as if a tap had been turned off, leaving the tarmac mo­mentarily empty. Then, in a finely tuned choreography, the traffic team swooped in to remove concrete barriers, followed by an “attenua­tor”, with its programmed traffic sign and cones and rear cushion. A crane manoeuvred into position, ac­companied by three trucks carrying counterweights. Someone spoke into a cellphone: “Nothing else down Beachcroft. Swing them through Hillsborough.”

Donning hard hat and vest, I made my way down to the powder-blue span, where the lift crew was busy with blocks and tackle.

The span floated a few inches above the road, as if the local gravity switch had been flicked.

Lift supervisor Chris Barlow explained that its lift angle was being adjusted so that when it was swung into position it would align at both ends. He un­folded a diagram, complete with swing radius, angle of lift and crane loadings. I realised that the neces­sary positions of the crane and the span had been precisely calculated and marked out on the road before the bridge section had even been delivered. There was nothing im­provised about this exercise. Noth­ing left to chance.

The first of 72 beams, each weighing some 38 tonnes, are prepared for lifting into position over the main trunk rail line. Because the line must remain open throughout the operation, work proceeds well into the night and around the train schedules.
The first of 72 beams, each weighing some 38 tonnes, are prepared for lifting into position over the main trunk rail line. Because the line must remain open throughout the operation, work proceeds well into the night and around the train schedules.

In the far lane someone cranked a set of bright portable work lights higher into the air, splaying shadow. Then, without further ado, the 30-tonne steel lattice rose silently towards the pylon.

Looking on with proprietary in­terest was Murray Dick, the owner of Taranaki Engineering, which had fabricated both pylon and span. Built in the company’s New Plymouth workshop in three sections, the span was trucked to Auckland—via Bulls to avoid tunnels—and splice-welded on site. The whole thing was manu­factured to a tolerance of 2 mm, said Dick. He had driven up to see his baby put in place.

“Each weld is logged,” he told me as the crane gingerly swung its load through a right angle. “We x-ray it and record who welded it, what qual­ifications they had, the air tempera­ture at the time the work was done. We will be handing over a four- or five-volume manual so NZTA will have full documentation.”

Dick read my surprise. “That’s nothing. The paperwork for what we did on the Kupe Gas Production Sta­tion filled a room.”

We lapsed into silence under the full moon, and watched engineers secure the bridge. It was 11.50 pm­ right on schedule.

An even more dramatic lift had taken place weeks earlier at the great Ring Route’s southern gateway, on a project known as the SH20-SH1 Manukau Extension. Here, amid a great deal of earth moving, pavement construction, bridge-building and stream realignment, State Highway 1 was being coaxed to link with the Southwestern Motorway. The end product will take traffic over the Manukau Harbour and on towards State Highway 16 at Waterview on the Upper Waitemata.

Street maps have for years carried the promise of such a thing, their pages show­ing a ghostly route ducking past Rainbows End Adventure Park and striking out through open country on a notional adventure of its own to connect with an existing stretch of road to the west.

The major obstacle to turning printer’s ink into reality—one that couldn’t readily be stopped, blocked or diverted—was the North Island Main Trunk Railway, which cut an undeviating path from Takanini north through Manurewa and on to­wards Otahuhu. Planners and infra­structure engineers responded with a rail bridge—one substantial enough to take a motorway. It called for a structure totalling six spans and 72 beams. The section over the railway itself was assembled during two night lifts, each involving the positioning of 38-tonne beams over live tracks.

The lifts were perhaps the Manu­kau Extension project’s most fraught operation. Rail owner KiwiRail, which manages the country’s 4000­ km rail network, put a “protector” on the job—a rail traffic co-ordinator able to contact train drivers from the construction site. There was lit­tle latitude for error. The 15-strong team had just 15 minutes, “from lift­off to hook-off”, to place each beam.

The Thursday night lift struck an unexpected complication in the shape of Aussie rockers AC/DC, who hit town for a concert that night. The bridge team learned that no fewer than 14 extra passenger trains had been scheduled to take fans to the venue. The window shrank and moved. Phones were worked. All part of the job. As one worker quipped: “Every day is a Monday here—except Sunday.”

By any measure the Manukau Extension is big. A $210 million joint venture between Leighton Contrac­tors and Downer EDI Works, it calls for 12 bridges, three major traffic interchanges and over a million cubic metres of earthworks in 13 distinct construction zones. When finished, there will be almost 17 km of drain­age and a quarter of a million square metres of pavement. Landscaping, too, to the extent of more than 240,000 native plants and trees. And all this packed into a high-density 64 ha site.

“We are the Ring Route in mi­crocosm,” said Leighton Works’ communications co-ordinator Matt Robertson as he showed me around the 4.5-kilometre-long swathe that constituted his patch. The first thing to strike me about what former Manukau City mayor Sir Barry Cur­tis liked to call the “heart bypass” was the sheer number of roads that crossed it. The new Southwestern Motorway was woven across the landscape—fold on fold of concrete and earth. But there were also at­tempts to humanise the built forms. Precast bridge barriers were stamped with decorative patterns that drew on the Pasifika identity of Manukau. There were pohutukawa seedlings destined for the western interchange, flaxes, and a totara grove planned for the hydra-headed eastern link.

Then there was the environmen­tal push—ironic, perhaps, for large-scale engineering dedicated to the internal combustion engine, but real, nonetheless.

Compliance targets, in the form of weekly audits by the Auckland Regional Council, had tat­tooed environmental awareness into the consciousness of everyone on the project.

There were water tankers in summer to keep dust down and water sprays in winter to take mud off trucks leaving the site. A network of bunds, channels and silt fences to divert runoff into sediment ponds and prevent discharge into water courses. And, most impressively, a purpose-built culvert for eels, com­plete with embedded rocks to create the sort of eddies and disrupted wa­ter flow that mimic a natural water­course. In several places the Puhinui Stream flowed across the path of the motorway and during construction it was temporarily diverted, neces­sitating the relocation of hundreds of eels and other aquatic life while new “amenities” were built. Such efforts would have had an earlier generation of civil engineers shaking their heads in disbelief, but they helped earn the joint venture an environmental management award.

We lingered, casting our gaze across the various native plantings that here and there stippled the earthworks. “They will encourage a flow of animals, birds and bugs from one end to the other,” said Robert­son, “like a hedge row.”

If on the surface nature appeared adaptable and accommodating, below ground it was obstinate. The project team had, said Robertson, encoun­tered “geotechnical issues”. It ap­peared that volcanic activity at some time had caused basalt of varying thickness and strength to flow over alluvial silts, and the mix of layered rock and a weak saturated material now caused problems underfoot. At the rail bridge, for example, engi­neers had been forced to use a variety of foundations. The western abutments rested on driven steel piles while those at the eastern end were of concrete. The central piers stood on concrete pad foundations.

For the State Highway 1 interchange, workers took the building process itself underground, con­structing the bridge and underpass using a “top-down” technique. First they sank deep-bored piles to create retaining walls on each side, which in turn supported a wide reinforced-concrete deck—the future underpass roof. Then, in the manner of a child excavating under ramparts in wet sand, the earth between the two sets of piles was scraped away, leaving a completed underpass.

That was difficult to build,” says Robertson. “But people will go through it in seconds. They won’t even notice it.”

And that is the thing about established technologies, whether bridges and roads, sewer systems or electric lighting. They reach what technology theorist Brian Arthur calls “comfortable old age”. They become faithful silver-haired servants, “available for duties if needed but largely taken for granted”. We use them much as our forebears did a hundred years ago. But—unless they fail—we don’t notice them.

The person chiefly responsible for ensuring that traffic flow around the Leighton Works project itself didn’t fail is an amiable American, Jeff Rob­erts. A traffic engineer in San Diego until he moved to New Zealand in 1991, Roberts joined what was then Transit New Zealand to help with master-planning for the Ring Route. His prime responsibility these days is to keep traffic flowing while the new infrastructure is built and bolted on to State Highway 1.

“One of the most challenging parts of the job is to keep running,” he said. “It is the aorta of the motorway system and it has an im­pact on everyone’s lives.”

With 50,000 vehicles a day travel­ling the highway in each direction, any temporary diversion to allow work on the new interchange is a major undertaking. Roberts had 10 switches under his belt, with an­other 10 to go when I met him in his cramped open-plan office.

“I close a section one night and, presto, it opens the next morning safe and trafficable but with the barriers somewhere else,” said Roberts. “I am something of a motorway magician.”

He reached for a roll of paper and unravelled it across his cluttered desk. “And these are my scrolls.”

The “scrolls” were colour-coded circuit diagrams of the Manukau Extension, plotting intricate closures and realignments designed to herd the never-ending flow of cars, trucks, buses, bikes and scooters into new patterns and create breathing spaces for construction crew and machinery.

A great deal of smart-tech has found its way into traffic manage­ment over the years, including vari­able message signs, ramp metering and traffic cams. Nevertheless, for the crews working the night switches, nothing could be taken for granted. One of the hiabs—hydrau­lic-armed vehicles used to move the nine-tonne concrete barriers—might get a flat tyre. A pavement milling machine might break down. Some­times the motorway was just too busy to close. And then there was the weather. Come rain and wind, motorists struggled to read signs, and out in the elements contractors fought to make progress. The only safe answer was to pull the plug on the operation before things got under way. Understandably, Roberts was an avid follower of meteorological forecasts.

Tendrils of asphalt spiral off the Southern Motorway at Manukau, the interchange with Auckland’s Southern Motorway leading to the CBD. By 2015, more than 50,000 cars each day will use the Western Ring Route, taking pressure off the arterial to the city.

“Once you press the go button for these night switches, there is no going back,” he said. “It takes a huge amount of planning. Having said that, something will always go wrong, guaranteed.”

Roberts served as senior traffic engineer during construction of the Northern Busway on Auckland’s North Shore, the country’s first purpose-built road dedicated to bus transport. There, lane narrow­ing was the instrument of choice for much of the work. Now, he was bracing himself for when the Ring Route goes live. When that hap­pens, the pristine new arrays of pavement will be connected to local roads and existing motorways with high-speed ramps—much of it on the same night.

“Opening all that will put all my magic skills to the test.”

I asked what changes he had seen in the business over the past few years, technology aside.

“One of the biggest developments since I arrived in New Zealand is this sucker here,” he said, tapping a weighty volume titled Code of Practice for Temporary Traffic Management. First published in July 2000, it is the standard reference work, setting out every particular of traffic manage­ment on highways and by ways.

Over at Manukau Harbour Crossing, the code sat behind eve­rything the traffic crews did. Early one morning, I wandered over to their shed, with a view to seeing how that inexhaustible stream of ve­hicles was managed. I ended up with something else—a glimpse of how the road-building industry both bound and separated the people who worked in it.

I had arranged to meet one of the traffic team linchpins, Ida Thomas. I looked in the Dome, out in the yard, in the cabs of work trucks, but she was nowhere to be found. Lead­ing hand Greg Campbell put me right. Thomas had taken a holiday­ her first break in a year or more. She had gone home to Maketu, a small settlement on Okurei Point in the Bay of Plenty.

It turned out she was Campbell’s mother-in-law. His family—all ex­cept the youngest—were also down there on the coast—“beach at the front door, bush out back”. Maketu, landing site of Te Arawa canoe, home to Ngati Whakaue, was not the place to drag family from. “The lifestyle they have there—I couldn’t deny them that.” So Campbell puts in a full week on Auckland’s infra­structure, then makes the three-hour drive back to paradise when he can. “Before I leave, I call Maketu to tell Mana, my eleven-year-old, that I am on my way. He knows to go out and get some kina for dinner.”

The family got into road-building on the Northern Busway project, Thomas first, then Campbell and a couple of church friends. Next came Thomas’s sister, Heeni Mikaere.

Campbell flicked out his cellphone and called Mikaere in from the road. I could go with her.

Mikaere was not one to stand on ceremony. She laughed by way of greeting as I climbed into the cab. Orange cones and other road para­phernalia filled the tray. “I’m the new girl on the block,” she said. “I gave up my job in sales after fifteen years for this. To have my sister as a boss.” The laugh again, easy as breathing. “We were at home having dinner one night and she was saying she needed a driver. I had my HT licence and it suddenly dawned on us. Ida was worried about nepotism, but the boss said, ‘Fletchers is family. Give her a go’.” Mikaere broke from the story to signal a turn, then she swung the wheel and we had motorway under our tyres.

Hotmix is laid down in a final flourish on the 4.5-km-long Manukau extension. In total 55,000 tonnes of asphalt will be rolled out on this short section of the Ring Route alone.
Hotmix is laid down in a final flourish on the 4.5-km-long Manukau extension. In total 55,000 tonnes of asphalt will be rolled out on this short section of the Ring Route alone.

We cruised, checking that signs and cones were all in order, that no graffiti demons had struck and that no breakdowns or accidents were interrupting the morning commute. The major road closures occur at night, but shoulder closures start after morning rush hour. Sometimes it is for graffiti trucks—“two were on the bridge yesterday”. Even a mower on the berm requires a line of cones, set far enough in to avoid being knocked over by traffic wind.

The phenomenon of distant and seemingly unrelated events affecting the behaviour of a complex system is no doubt widely studied, but I am always impressed when I come across a fresh example. Mikaere introduced me to one. A while back, the price of petrol took a sharp hike and the number of incidents caused by motorway breakdowns shot up. “It got to be three or four a week,” she told me. The reason? People skimped on petrol. They visited the pump less often and trusted in providence. Or they just boxed on regardless. Often they ran dry, and Mikaere had to swing by and restore order. For now, drivers are back to filling their tanks.

The speaker crackled. “All right, auntie?” It was Campbell, at base.

Mikaere smiled and lifted the handset. “All ka pai, darling.”

[Chapter Break]

Construction is a dangerous industry to be in, anywhere. But a 6.2 km-long site with 35 access points, 30 or more teams of subcontractors, heavy engineering work over water, and a live motorway running through much of it, is an open invitation for accidents. Jay Lauten’s job, as health and safety manager, is to prevent injury and damage caused by everything from flying hub­caps—“we get heaps of them from motorway traffic”—to reversing accidents—six in the project’s first six months, nothing since.

Lauten is untiring when it comes to devising ways of keeping workers safe. From the mandatory safety induction for newcomers to the daily hazard check list, designed to capture what he calls “evolving hazards”, and the compulsory daily safety meet­ings, Lauten runs a tight ship.

Nothing, though, could have prepared him for what happened recently on the motorway shoulder.

One of the traffic night crew had been walking the beat, checking cones and barriers, when up ahead in the gloom he spotted a sign on its side. As he was setting it right, he heard a noise and, turning, was at­tacked by someone with a knife. He suffered a slashed chest but quick reflexes probably saved his life. A gang wannabe, perhaps, trying to earn street cred.

Lauten is no stranger to senseless violence. In his 18 years as a para­medic on the Zimbabwe border, he was often called in to patch up the results—gunshot wounds especially. Eventually, fate caught up with him when his ambulance was hijacked on a call-out. Shot in the abdomen and left for dead on a remote dirt road, he spent three days in a coma. When he came to in hospital, he decided to quit his native South Africa and in 2000, with little more than the money in his pocket and a few suitcases, he and his family arrived in New Zealand.

If anything, that brush with death gave an edge to his quest for safety. When I joined Lauten on his site-wide safety audit, he had no com­punction in shutting down work on a bridge abutment when he judged the safety rails put up by contract scaffolders to be inadequate. Back at the Dome, one of the regulars, Shane ‘Croc’ Porter, was not short of a reason for that. The subbies were having trouble keeping up with the construction gangs. “We’re lightning fast,” said Porter.

It was true that the Manukau Harbour Crossing project hit its stride early and had not let up. Indications were that, unlike its near-identical neighbour, belatedly com­pleted in 1983 after a near decade-long strike, the new bridge would be finished within budget and months ahead of schedule.

To date, the insertion of this major piece of infrastructure had caused little public friction. The two communities most directly af­fected—Onehunga, one of Auck­land’s oldest suburbs, to the north of the harbour crossing and Mangere Bridge to the south—have had things to say, especially over noise, road closures and congestion. But Ralph Hall, chairman of the community and project liaison group, told me that the openness of the consultative process kept tension low. “If you can put in a time frame and explain the reason for things happening, people are more able to accept what needs to be done,” he said.

It helped, of course, that the major engineering work took place out in the harbour, well away from backyards. Similarly, the Manukau Extension largely involved building on land set aside years ago for motor­way construction, and the nearby Mt Roskill extension—also part of the Ring Route—made use of land desig­nated for rail.

Where things got sticky for plan­ners and for the project’s Govern­ment backers was at the Waterview Connection, hook-up point for State Highways 20 and 16. Originally, this section of the Ring Route was envis­aged as a tunnel under the neigh­bouring suburbs of Waterview and Avondale. But seeing a motorway be­ing plotted through urban quarters is rather like watching a giant treading the land. No matter how carefully the boots come down, houses, parks, social amenities come to grief under the heels. In the case of Waterview, it was about 365 homes. Escalating costs—which climbed to a stagger­ing $2.77 billion—soon forced a rethink. It was an inordinate amount to spend on 4.5 km of road, and the sum bought just two lanes each way. The price tag was calculated as the equivalent of 1.6 per cent of New Zealand’s GDP.

In the case of Waterview, it was about 365 homes. Escalating costs—which climbed to a stagger­ing $2.77 billion—soon forced a rethink. It was an inordinate amount to spend on 4.5 km of road, and the sum bought just two lanes each way. The price tag was calculated as the equivalent of 1.6 per cent of New Zealand’s GDP.

For this critical final link in the Ring Route, a $1.15 billion alterna­tive was therefore devised. Adopted in December 2009, it incorporates 2.4 km of three-lane twin tunnels and, so the planners claim, will de­stroy 160 fewer houses. The tunnels are to be bored by a road-header, similar to the machine used for the Northern Gateway toll road, with construction beginning in late 2011 and scheduled to take four years.

[Chapter Break]

Mention of  the Northern Gateway toll road prompts an unfor­tunate but illuminating footnote—in the very week that the Transport Agency announced the final scheme for the Waterview Connection, the much-lauded toll road, built to speed the journey of motorists travelling between Auckland and Warkworth, ground to a halt. The futuristic autobahn experience soured for many holiday-makers as traffic began banking up north of Puhoi mid­morning. Three hours later, the jam stretched 25 km from Warkworth almost all the way back to the start of the toll road itself.

It was a sobering demonstration that all the concrete in the world can’t inoculate against gridlock, that chance will always find a way of throwing a curveball.

With the flow of traffic about to be diverted along side roads in Onehunga, a tandem crane takes up the strain to lift a pylon into place for the replacement footbridge.   
With the flow of traffic about to be diverted along side roads in Onehunga, a tandem crane takes up the strain to lift a pylon into place for the replacement footbridge.

The Ring Route raises questions over issues more profound than the fate of a particular number of houses—distressing though that fate may be for the people under their roofs. It comes down to the choices that a society makes about its future. All futures cost money. Badly envisaged ones usually end up costing more.

And while it is true that the Ring Route is an attempt to over­come a disastrous decision made years ago—to run a state highway through the heart of Auckland—the massive amount being spent on the fix has some people worried. As “Helen”, a correspondent on a Wa­terview Tunnel blog, wrote midway through last year, “You can’t always fix a roading problem with a roading solution.” Her point was that fast, expensive roads would merely at­tract more cars, creating new levels of congestion. There was also the phenomenon of efficient stretches of tarmac merely shifting gridlock, at great expense, a few kilometres further down the road. Would it be better, then, to swing the lever away from the private petrol-powered car that began as a docile iron horse all those years ago and then twisted into an addiction?

It is a question that, oddly, evokes a memory of my first time under canvas, in a big, square tent with three mates. One night, the rain became torrential, drumming on the roof and seeping in under the flaps. It seemed as though it would go on forever. Eventually, someone got up and began digging a trench around the tent with a spade to drain water. Others joined in enthusiasti­cally, even setting to work inside the tent, scraping channels between the groundsheets to engineer the flood into orderly drains. In the flickering torchlight we worked heroically, dig­ging and channelling until, tired and exhausted, we stopped and looked around. We were completely awash.

The work of our own hands had defeated us.