The final programme of works to complete the Victoria Park Tunnel project in central Auckland is now underway and the NZ Transport Agency says it plans to have the third lane through the 450 metre-long tunnel opened next Monday (26 March).
On the same day, the NZTA will open a fifth lane for the extra traffic during the afternoon peak from the Beaumont Street/Fanshawe on-ramp through St Marys Bay to the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
"The extra room we are providing for traffic in the tunnel and through St Marys Bay will have a significant and positive impact for people driving through the Central Motorway (Spaghetti) Junction - especially during the afternoon peak," says the NZTA's State Highways Manager for Auckland and Northland, Tommy Parker.
"Because of the number of vehicles on the highway, there will still be the usual afternoon peak queues further south on the Southern Motorway, but we do expect that journeys through the Central Motorway Junction are going to be easier and quicker when drivers are used to the improvements."
"In January, queues disappeared overnight for drivers going south when we opened the Vic Park flyover for four southbound lanes. It's estimated that drivers are saving six to eight minutes on trips south of Fanshawe Street, and now it's the turn of those driving north to benefit from the increased motorway capacity," says Mr Parker.
Next Monday's planned opening will depend on the weather and contractors being able to complete necessary work. Their programme includes surfacing, lane marking, fitting guard rails, installing electronic equipment to help measure traffic conditions, and trialling the moveable lane barrier's extended run of 1.2 kilometres from the Auckland Harbour Bridge to Fanshawe Street.
The moveable lane barrier will be used to establish the fifth lane. The lane will be opened no later than 3.30pm on weekdays and will close around 7pm when peak hour traffic eases. Drivers will be able to access it from either Beaumont or Fanshawe Streets. The number of lanes in St Marys Bay will, for the first time, match the five lanes on the bridge during the afternoon peak.
"It will be safer as well as quicker because it will reduce the need for lane changing on the approach to the bridge where, in the past, drivers have jostled for position," Mr Parker says.
A video animation showing how the peak lane works at the Fanshawe Street on ramp can be seen at: www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/victoria-park-tunnel/video-fanshawe.html(external link)
"There have been limited opportunities to test the changes because they are being made within a live motorway," he says. "It could take several weeks before drivers experience the full benefits of the changes".
The tunnel's third lane will extend back to the ramp signals where traffic from the Northwestern Motorway (SH16) and Grafton Gully merges with SH1.
Mr Parker says the Wellington Street on-ramp will be open only to emergency and motorway service vehicles until both the NZTA and Auckland Transport have had a chance to assess the impact of next Monday's changes on the central motorway junction, especially during the afternoon peak.
"State Highways 1 and 16 are our biggest priorities. Because of their importance - not only for Auckland's communities but for the country as a whole - we must first make sure that they are running at their best."
Mr Parker says that when drivers get used to the extra lanes, the NZTA and Auckland Transport will then start to have a clearer understanding of the tunnel's benefits. The review that will follow will provide the necessary information to make an informed decision about the future of Wellington Street that is best for all of Auckland.
The $340m Victoria Park Tunnel project, which is finishing three months ahead of schedule, is the first of the Government's national roads of significance to be completed. It has been built to increase vehicle capacity and to help improve safety and travel times for all drivers - those carrying freight, bus operators, commuters and private motorists - through a previously narrow section of motorway that carries an average of 120,000 vehicles daily.
"We are unlocking the full potential of the Victoria Park Tunnel project and all the other improvements that began to the Central Motorway Junction10 years ago. It's a billion dollar investment to help make driving easier on the most heavily congested section of our network," Mr Parker says.