This is a guest post by architect and our occassional Wellington correspondent Guy Marriage
The first section of the Kapiti Expressway opened on 24 February, at 4am, with little fanfare. As an immediate response to this implicit request, that induced me to make some more traffic by driving up and down the new road, just to see what it is like.
While the section opened up so far is long, from McKays Crossing just north of Paekakariki, stretching north over 20 km nearly to Otaki, it is also completely finished and the verges are well planted. Overall, of course, the Expressway has more to be done, both north (to bypass Otaki) and south (to connect into the Transmission Gully project, itself still many years away). But what has been built so far is well done, and no wonder: it was vastly expensive. It does not, of course, move traffic any faster overall, as it still has obstructions both north and south of it, but it does at least give the impression that one day it will free up traffic to drive smoothly up the coast. Certainly Ken Shirley and his mate Steven Joyce should be well happy.
There are two lanes, each way, with a wide shoulder each side and a continuous center barrier. It should see the accident rate come down : it appears to be well designed in terms of camber and curve, and as the main heavy traffic route into and out of the capital, the truckers will love it. The route has long, lazy, winding curves, rather than being straight as an arrow, and feels enjoyable to drive, rather than the previous bumpy, constricted, one lane road it was before.
What is interesting is that the places that used to cause the constriction before, like Paraparaumu and Waikanae, have completely disappeared. The road was designed to bypass them, and so it has: no trace of them remain. There is a sign pointing to an offramp of course, but due to the winding route and the roadside barriers there was no actual sign, at least not from the seat of my low-slung sedan. Truckers, obviously, will be able to see out over the top of the barriers, but I was surprised – there were moments when I was sure that we were probably going through a Kapiti Coast town, but due to the roadside barriers, I could see nothing.
In terms of urban design, I find the barriers pretty awful. No doubt they are highly functional, but as a series of disjointed concrete panels with minimal decoration (some lines running vertically) and varying heights, they do look a little like a children’s drawing. Perhaps that is the intention. Perhaps they actually were. Nonetheless, they work. I don’t see the town and the town doesn’t see me.
Building on this part of the coast is difficult as the land is sandy and marshy. Perfect for ancient Maori tribes to sit and catch and cook (the land of many many earth ovens), but less suited for building roads on. Millions and millions of tonnes of rock and shingle were moved and compacted to build this smooth raised highway, which meant deep digging down into the subsoil to remove the marshy, sandy topping. No doubt, technologically it is a marvel, and the roading industry will give itself rewards for their cleverness, but ecologically it has been rather savage, and will have destroyed the natural drainage patterns in the area. The good thing is that the roading designers have recognized this and have built up an elaborate series of waterways surrounding the road, with marshy ponds and overflow channels well supplied on either side. The marshes are extremely well planted – there are several million new bits of flora installed and growing happily in the elaborate landscaping. The local wildlife is also loving it – evident by, sadly, the bodies of at least 6 dead Pukeko on the road in one small area and this just from the first day. It’s not easy to train a Pukeko to keep off the road, but at this rate, the obviously healthy local population of moor hens will be considerably smaller before long.
A continuous cycle trail is present, visible through the landscaping, and already utilized by the local school kids coming home a new way home from school. A cycle / pedestrian bridge oversails the road at one point, long, thin, black, and somewhat sophisticated, but mostly the bridges are just simple, straightforward and modern, with none of the elaborate patterning seen on Auckland motorway cuttings lately. I’m glad for that – simple is better – and as yet there is no graffiti. There is really only one decorated feature on the trip – a prow of a small hillock, which the road snakes around, almost cutting it off but not quite – its concrete panels carved with tribal patterns, no doubt referring back to days gone by when it would have had a more significant local role as a landmark. The decoration makes a pleasant change from the greenery, but it is the only feature of any significance on this road of supposed National Significance.
Overall then, the road is fine. The trip is pleasant. The time taken is shorter but it won’t really be evident for many years yet till the works at the southern end are completed. The cost is enormous, the value, as yet, unknown.