Whinging and moaning about roadworks is a favourite Auckland pastime – and social media has amplified the anguish. It’s part of what’s caused Auckland Transport to up its game when it comes to communication around big projects.
Franklin Road in Ponsonby is best known for its annual display of Christmas lights. Every December thousands of people head there to gawp, tripping over the roots of the famous London plane trees, or hunting fruitlessly for a parking space. For the last two years however it’s become known as a street to avoid at all costs, as it is dug up, moved about and worked on. The orange bloom of the road cones there is set to continue for another year yet.
However, given some of the high profile residents of the street, there’s been a surprising lack of outcry from them. Part of that is because they asked for the upgrade – but a lot of it is because they’re being consulted and kept informed throughout. The Franklin Road approach has become the template for major projects.
The street is an important link between Ponsonby Road and the CBD, and carries in the region of 14,000-15,000 vehicles every day. Many of its houses are also businesses and there is a major supermarket at the bottom. It also contains 110 trees that are more than 100 years old. If you were starting from scratch, a London plane tree would be about the last species you would plant. Their leaves and roots are a transport planner’s nightmare, but it’s hard to remove them once they’re labelled “iconic”.
Auckland Transport’s project manager Ashwin Kumar says not only were the trees damaging footpaths, they had wound their way into the drainage system and under the road. There were safety hazards for walkers, cyclists and drivers. Their branches were blocking street lighting. Underneath, an ancient sewerage system needed replacing. The busy and dangerous Wellington St intersection needed a fix. And broadband fibre had to go in.
AT has a “dig once” policy which means whenever road works are planned it consults with Vector, Watercare, Chorus and Auckland Council’s stormwater division. Kumar says that process, involving many discussions, meetings and workshops, takes a considerable amount of time, but in Franklin Road’s case it’s been a huge success.
At the end of the re-build next year there will be a considerably upgraded sewer line, separated stormwater, power lines undergrounded, pits built to protect the tree roots, wider footpaths and a cycleway, a new roundabout at that tricky intersection, and 40 water catchments (there were only eight drains before and only half of them worked). A brand new light system will be installed to get around the tree top issue – wires will be zig-zagged from high poles, and lights positioned on them hanging above the middle of the road. There will also be LED footpath lighting. Lost will be 30-40 parking spaces but Kumar points out the new parking bays will make sure that illegal parking that was damaging the trees will stop. As much future-proofing as possible has been done, including using fibre reinforced concrete for paths to keep the tree roots from lifting them up again. The entire road has been elevated for the same reason. The job will cost a total of $16 million.
It’s clearly time consuming, especially when you factor in having not being able to work in the evenings or overnight, having to keep at least one lane of the road open at all times, and not being able to use diggers for laying new pipes – to protect the trees hydra-excavation, using air and water, was used. Work shut down in December for the festive season.
Kumar says in many cases, the paperwork on what lies beneath the road surface is so far off reality that it can cause big delays. After the planning stages the first part of any road works involves simply digging to find out what’s there – and that can take months. Future proofing means making provision for walkers and cyclists and that adds to project times, with new layouts, kerbing and channelling to be done.
His passion about the project shines through as he makes his way up the road where concreting is taking place on a seamless pedestrian path, which creates an effective speed hump for cars at the top of a side road.
“My approach has been to engage with people. Everybody involved knows what needs to be done.”
People still do ask why it’s taking so long. “We don’t want to cut corners,” he says. “I don’t believe in that. It sometimes takes longer but it’s a better outcome. Franklin Road is at the forefront of this new approach.”
AT’s communications man Mark Hannan says lessons have been learnt from other projects where not enough time was taken to talk to residents and locals about what was going on. “Social media has amplified the complaints .. we do need to be more explanatory.” He says in cases where a community group has been involved, residents themselves have answered complaints on forums such as Twitter.
“But we have to go back with information … people don’t necessarily understand the level of work that’s being done,” he says. “Delays might be caused by something they’ve found underground … or above it.”
The perception that the city is covered in road cones right now may not be completely illusory. Higher safety standards have meant there’s much more emphasis on visual cues that there’s something going on, so when you drive past work being done you really can’t miss it. As well as that, Hannan says it’s fair to say there is more work going on across the city.
“We have steadily increasing budgets and we are responding to growth in Auckland,” he says.
“Prior to amalgamation in 2010 the various councils tended to do a lot of smaller maintenance projects whereas Auckland Transport is taking on more large scale jobs.”