Northland bridge finally opens, nine years after it was promised

2:41 pm on 24 February 2024
Aerial view of the new bridge and roundabout under construction on State Highway 10, plus the old one-lane bridge over the Kāeo River. Photo: NZTA Waka Kotahi

Aerial view of the new bridge nearing completion earlier this month, with the old bridge in the background. Photo: NZTA / Waka Kotahi

One of Northland's most keenly anticipated bridges has opened, almost nine years after it was promised during a hotly contested by-election campaign.

The old one-way Kāeo Bridge has long been a summer chokepoint on State Highway 10 between the Bay of Islands and Doubtless Bay.

It was too narrow for some trucks, contributed to the flooding that plagued Kāeo, and was the scene of occasional road-rage incidents sparked by drivers unfamiliar with the give-way rules for one-way bridges.

From Saturday, however, all that will be history. The new two-lane bridge is not just wider but also higher and, at 110 metres, twice as long as the old bridge, which will improve water flow during floods.

The $40 million project, which got underway in earnest in 2021, includes a roundabout on the Kāeo side of the river to improve traffic flow.

It is a crucial link in the only highway connecting Kāitaia with the rest of the country since the 2022 closure of State Highway 1 over the Mangamuka Ranges.

Long-time Kāeo resident and community board representative Bruce Mills said the new bridge had lifted people's spirits.

For too long Kāeo had suffered from floods and neglect, but now it was on the way up.

"It's a huge thing. The old bridge created all sorts of issues over many, many years. It's also the whole image of having this beautiful big bridge there. It's very impressive. Kāeo's been downtrodden for many years so this is a real plus."

Mills said the old bridge was "very, very narrow" so trucks had only a few centimetres to spare on each side, and the guard rails were always being dented and replaced.

The sharp, cliff-hugging turn also made it impossible for some trucks to get onto the old bridge.

Mills said Kāeo had double cause for celebration this week because a new "walk bridge" had also opened in the centre of town.

Dignitaries gather at the Kāeo Bridge construction site for a pre-dawn blessing in April 2019. Covid and budget shortfalls delayed the project for another two years. Photo: Peter de Graaf

Dignitaries gather at the Kāeo Bridge construction site for a pre-dawn blessing in April 2019. Covid and budget shortfalls delayed the project for another two years. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

It replaced a narrow section of footpath with a dangerous drop onto the highway, which was "exceptionally scary" when big trucks rumbled past.

It was also too narrow for wheelchairs, mobility scooters and the like.

The new pedestrian bridge was not just safer and more accessible, it was also designed as a town focal point and gathering place.

Mills said he had been trying to get the footbridge built for the past 25 years, a third of his life.

"So these two bridges are lifting Kāeo tremendously," he said.

Plans for the new highway bridge, just north of town, go back to the Northland by-election sparked by the resignation of MP Mike Sabin.

Then Transport Minister Simon Bridges travelled to Kāeo in March 2015 to unveil National's Ten Bridges policy, in which the party pledged to replace ten one-way bridges on the Twin Coast Discovery Route.

It later transpired that one of the bridges was not a bridge at all, but a narrowing of the road between two massive kauri trees in Waipoua Forest.

National lost the by-election to New Zealand First's Winston Peters, but three of the most critical bridges were completed in 2019.

They were the two Matakohe bridges on State Highway 12 and the Taipā bridge on State Highway 10.

Work on the Kāeo Bridge was delayed by budget constraints and the Covid-19 pandemic.

A New Zealand Transport Agency spokesperson said, however, today's opening to two-way traffic was two months ahead of schedule.

Work to demolish the old bridge and finish the roundabout and connecting roads would continue, with the project expected to be fully completed by April.

State Highway 10 through Kāeo township has also been resurfaced in recent days.

The bridge will formally opened by Transport Minister Simeon Brown and local iwi at a ceremony in the nearby Kāeo Rugby Club.