5 Aug 2022

What does the new Waikato Expressway mean for the small towns?

From Checkpoint, 5:23 pm on 5 August 2022

It's a project 30 years and billions of dollars in the making. Now the completed Waikato Expressway is set to change the face of the region's towns and villages, for better or worse.

The new motorway from Auckland to Tīrau is likely to cut 35 minutes off the average driver's trip, as it bypasses towns that State Highway 1 used to go through.

At the southern end of the route, Tīrau locals are quietly hoping it will help their businesses bounce back after some struggled, and even shut down, due to Auckland's lockdowns.

"Brilliant, absolutely brilliant," one Tīrau resident said.

"I love it. People leave Auckland and the first town they hit is Tīrau. It's great for our little town," another said.

Paul Andugula has owned the Cabbage Tree Cafe for seven years. He told Checkpoint there were some dark times in the past two years.

"When the borders were closed, we realised that 70 percent of our business is from Auckland."

With a more direct route to Tīrau from Auckland, he said it will be good for the town.

"We are happy to serve them, come to us and generate more business for us. We are a little town and it's lovely, lovely to see you all."

Paul Andugula owns Cabbage Tree Cafe in Tīrau.

Cabbage Tree Cafe owner Paul Andugula thinks the Waikato Expressway will be good for Tīrau. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

At home deco store Notting Hill, staff member Cassie Winikerei told Checkpoint there are mixed opinions about the new road, but she is seeing the opportunities.

"We are much busier. It's really good for our business, but I do feel sorry for the people on the main road because it is so busy."

The big problem for Notting Hill, with another outlet on the other side of the main road, is the danger for customers trying to cross over.

"It would be nice to have a pedestrian crossing. But, yeah, I'm finding it really good."

The Waikato Expressway from Auckland to Tīrau is likely to cut 35 minutes off the average driver's trip, as it bypasses towns that State Highway 1 used to go through.

Tīrau locals have mixed opinions about the new road. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

However, some in Tīrau are not happy about the expressway ending in the town. Speaking anonymously, they said it is not alleviating the town's reputation as a transport bottleneck.

There are some features along Tīrau 's main drag that some locals think are causing issues.

"You come through on a Sunday afternoon and everyone's driving really slow because there's 50 cafes here, and then people are walking past the zebra crossing to go see the sheep and dog, so that's got to change," one man said.

Cambridge property broker Cathy O'Shea.

Cambridge property broker Cathy O'Shea says the expressway has catapulted the area into the future. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

About 32km north in Cambridge, locals say the town is growing more attractive by the day, thanks to the expressway east of the town.

"It's literally making life so much easier and everybody's talking about it. There are some concerns that some places will be marginalised, like Huntly, but that's not actually happening," property broker Cathy O'Shea said.

"What we're finding is that people are enjoying the quiet of the 'village' life."

She said the biggest issue is actually where to put people.

"We just don't have enough houses, properties. We're working 24/7 every day is Monday.

"Don't believe what you read, the expressway has just catapulted us, the area, into the future."

As an example, a newly-built low-maintenance lock and leave brick townhouse will sell for more than $1 million in Cambridge.

"This development… we've only got three left and they're selling around $1.3m… we just simply don't have enough. It's very, very hard to find anything to buy in Cambridge."

The new Waikato Expressway from Auckland to Tīrau is likely to cut 35 minutes off the average driver's trip, as it bypasses towns that State Highway 1 used to go through.

But some towns are getting much less traffic with the opening of the new Waikato Expressway. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Further north in Gordonton – once a popular bypass for those avoiding Hamilton – there are concerns about customers.  

"It hasn't had an enormous amount of effect in terms of actual turnover, but what it has affected is the volume of customers we're having," farm shop owner Kevin Clark told Checkpoint.

"We're in a fortunate position that our customers seem to be spending a little bit more with us at present, but there is definitely less of them. Probably a third less than there was a month ago."

On a weekday morning in the town there is a trickle of cars and stock trucks, a smattering of customers in the cafes.

They're the ones Clark fears for. While he's a destination, others will miss the traffic. 

But not all hope is lost for the rural village. Far from it, Clark said.

"We would like to think that there's enough of us now with ourselves, the little art gallery – the Mandarin Tree – a very good lighting business called Mr Ralph, which brings a lot of people into the village.

"We've got the Zealong Tea Estate, things like that, Woodlands Estate, and lots of other things that actually bring people out here."

For the locals, much like their neighbours in Huntly, they are not bothered by no longer have SH1 traffic trucking through their town.

"I think people will take advantage of the fact that it's quieter and more pleasant. It's a wee environment to make better, as a pedestrian environment," one local said.

Ralph is a shop that would not be out of place in Auckland's Newmarket shopping area.

Owner Rachel Williamson told Checkpoint there will be some fears with the change.

"So it's just about what we do, moving forward, to get people out here.

"I'm feeling really good about it."