It was supposed to be an interview over a coffee, but when the construction manager of the biggest project in Ōtaki’s history says “let’s go for a drive” you’re not going to turn him down.
The “drive” was along the length of the Peka Peka to Ōtaki expressway in Steve Findlay’s grubby Jeep Wrangler – a sturdy 20-year old vehicle clearly well used to the mud and jolts of a big construction site. With the top of the doors off we could get a good view of bridges, culverts, huge machinery, workers and the sheer scale of the build.
While a huge job in its own right, this expressway is a little smaller than the other RoNS (Roads of National Significance) projects in the region, such as the recent Mackays to Peka Peka expressway and Transmission Gully, Steve says.
He should know. He’s got many years of construction experience under his belt – the gig with Fletchers (the main contractor to the NZ Transport Agency) being just the latest.
Steve grew up on a farm just outside of Inglewood in Taranaki before moving to Wellington and a career in the civil construction industry. Having spent many years working in Wellington he admits to having driven absentmindedly through Ōtaki many times.
“I just never thought about stopping,” he says. “People would say how great Ōtaki was, but it just didn’t register with me. Now I’m working and living here with my family, I’m just loving it.
“People here are friendly and there’s a really good feel about the place.”
Steve says his job requires him to be office bound much of the day, but he clearly loves getting out on the site where the real work gets done. The hard hat, safety glasses and hi-vis vest seem as natural as fur on a cat.
The drive along the expressway was timely, given that the project is about the halfway mark.
We started from the north near Taylors Road and looked across the new Waitohu Stream bridge (Bridge 1), where Steve explained how the traffic would flow (local road traffic – currently SH1 – looping under the bridge, with the expressway over the bridge). Then to Bridges 2 and 3 carrying SH1 traffic – the only new bridges in use so far – where a slip road will allow expressway drivers to head onto the Plateau or go south to the highway shops.
Just on the other side of the bridges around Pare-o-Matangi Reserve, the sand gives way to peat, revealing old logs and evidence of past vegetation. It showed how different the terrain could be in different areas. The remaining reserve will be extensively replanted and landscaped as part of the project.
Plantings have already been done in many other areas along the expressway embankments, so by the time of opening, the vegetation will be well established.
Bridge 4 on Rāhui Road is well on track for opening late November, with the east and west approaches substantially completed. Then down past the railway station on the expressway route, where Ōtaki’s market gardeners used to load produce onto wagons at a railway siding, and on towards the biggest build of the project, the Ōtaki River bridge.
Just north of the bridge, Steve points out an area of open land adjacent to SHI where about 80,000 cubic metres of gravel will be dug out for expressway embankment use. A big mound of unusable fill will go into the hole as replacement.
The river bridge looks and is impressive. It’s a solid bit of engineering, capable of withstanding severe quakes and whatever the river will throw at it. Its construction has involved a bit of luck.
“We thought about building a temporary staging structure across the river to help with the build and avoid delays if and when the river flooded, but it was going to cost a chunk of change,” Steve says. “So we decided to take a risk and work with the river rather than avoid it. In the end, we had minimal flooding and we were able to get on with the job.
“We definitely got lucky, but you need a bit of luck on a job like this every now and then.”
Just south of the river is another bridge, which is largely completed and will carry traffic into Ōtaki Gorge Road. At this point the expressway heads directly south towards Marycrest (Manuhiri).
There’s another east-west bridge under construction at Te Horo, and one at Marycrest. It’s here that a bridge support will need to be right on the current SH1 road, so the new arterial road on the west side of the expressway north of Te Hapua Road will be in use by Christmas. That will mean the Marycrest SH1 bend will no longer be part of the highway.
South of Marycrest, past Te Hapua Road and to where the project will join up to the Mackays to Peka Peka expressway, there’s evidence of massive earthworks.
Prompted about the biggest headache for a job like this, Steve says its the earthworks.
“You never know what you’re going to find until you’re out of the ground. Bridges are easy – they’re above the ground. But earthworks can be tricky, because it’s all about material types and what can go where.
“And there’s a lot of moving material around. Sometimes we move it three times, preferably not too far. On top of that, getting the volumes right on something that is always a moving target is a constant challenge.”
Despite the challenges, Steve still has a smile on his face. The project overall is on target.
“Most things are going well, some not so good, but overall I’m pretty happy with how it’s going.” Which is good news for Ōtaki.