A United endeavour

Whangarei company United Civil Construction has taken its skills nearly 300 kilometres north and, with some local help, is adding a final touch of respectability to State Highway 1.   BY GAVIN RILEY

United_3.jpgSealing the final few kilometres of State Highway 1 to Cape Reinga may seem an undemanding if high-profile and historic project, yet it is a task that is scheduled to take just over three years to complete.

Remoteness of location, rugged climate, restricted availability of roading materials and required respect for the environment and tourist traffic have combined to ensure the truth of the adage that the last mile is the longest.

None of these challenges, however, is deterring main contractor United Civil Construction from getting on with the job. The Whangarei-based company was on site in September last year, began turning dirt the following month, and is due to complete the $14.5 million project by December 1, 2010.

So far it’s been a rain-soaked ride. For the construction period from September last year to the end of April this year, the rainfall was 40 percent higher than the 30-year average. According to United managing director Andrew Campbell, the locals said they had never seen anything like it. And this past winter, when United’s team was restricted to working on retaining walls and drainage in the carpark at Cape Reinga, two out of every five working days were lost.

Campbell is hoping this construction season will be much drier – though he knows only too well that the collision of the Southern Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea off Cape Reinga ensures regular deluges in the far north of the Far North (including a 160mm downpour in six hours in February).

“It’s really unpredictable. But if the wind’s coming from the northeast you may as well batten down the hatches,” he says.

United_2.jpg“At the end of May this year we had completed only 75-80 percent of the earthworks programme we had at the start of last summer. It’s our hope that we can make that up and have 14 of the 19 kilometres of road sealed at the end of the season on May 1, 2009.”

Despite smoothing of some of the 100-plus bends, and other safety improvements such as road widening here and there to provide a 7.2 metre seal width, the volume of earthworks on the project is unremarkable. Nearly 100,000 cubic metres were shifted last summer over the first six kilometres, another 90,000 cubic metres covering a further six kilometres are due to be moved this summer, and a final 38,000 cubic metres over the last six kilometres will be handled in the 2009-2010 construction season.

Because the road to the cape carries 1300 vehicles daily in summer, up to 30 percent of the bulk earthworks were carried out last season at night under lights, from 7pm through to 4 or 5am. Much of the soil is cut to waste and is trucked by big Moxys to eight specified dump sites located along the project route.

In accordance with the wishes of the NZ Transport Agency that the contractor use local resources and invest in the community wherever possible, United has 20 locals among its up to 25 staff working on the Cape Reinga contract.

“In July last year, before we started the job, we had interviews for local folk and selected 13. At that stage some of them had licences, some didn’t,” Campbell says.

“We put them through the usual employment checks and a four-week training course in association with Work and Income, and with a qualified trainer from an external training provider. Others have come on board since. They’re all good workers and it’s really pleasing how they’ve bought into the project.

“This year we’re hoping to pick up on a few who have shown promise and get them to hook onto the modern apprenticeship scheme. We are currently interviewing additional candidates as we ramp up for the coming season and we’re developing further training programmes for the coming year.”

United_1.jpgUnited’s Whangarei base is 275 kilometres, or a three-hour-plus drive, from the project site, which itself is an hour away from the nearest large town, Kaitaia. So although the company has a branch in Kerikeri and rents an on-site office at a Department of Conservation station, its “on the spot” recruitment strategy has not been an easy one to implement. However, it is important because in addition to enriching the local economy it helped evaporate protests at the start of the job from a section of the community who regard the site as sacred. (There were also early incidents of sabotage, such as draining of diesel tanks and smashing of cab windows, which have been curbed by the presence of a full-time security guard.)

United’s policy of local involvement wherever possible is reflected also in its choice of subcontractors – drainage and culverts, B3 of Te Hapua; aggregates supply, Bellingham Quarries of Kaitaia; in-situ stablilising of existing subgrade with lime, Northland Road Stabilizers of Whangarei; and concrete dish channels, Stonecraft Construction of Kaitaia. Only the sealing and earthworks are undertaken by “outsiders” – Higgins Contractors and Magnum Construction respectively.

To reduce the dust problem and quicken the process of adding lime to the base layer to strengthen the road significantly, United has acquired from Byford’s Construction of Taihape a pugmill previously used on the Alpurt B1 roading project north of Auckland.

United had employed an old pugmill extensively (around 400,000 tonnes of pre-mixed lime stabilised aggregate) when building heavy-duty pavements on the lengthy Northport development in Whangarei and thought such a machine would be a considerable time-saver at Cape Reinga.   

The ex-Byford portable pugmill is sited at Bellingham’s Te Hapua quarry, which is eight kilometres from the Waitaki Landing southern end of the sealing and is supplying the 51,000 cubic metres solid measure of aggregate required for the project.

“We’ve made some modifications to the pugmill so we can put lime through it as well as cement,” Campbell says.

“It’s computerised, calibrated and gives us very good control over the quality of the end product. We can put through up to 1500 tonnes a day. It’s excellent technology and it saves a lot of time. Given the restricted dry weather last summer, that was a saving grace for us.

“The lime-aggregate mix comes out of the pugmill at optimum water content, so when you put it on the road you don’t have to add much water to it and the compaction time is less.”

United Civil Construction’s role at Cape Reinga extends to maintaining the existing road (for which material has been supplied by an almost-exhausted quarry on Department of Conservation land); constructing car-parks, large water tanks and associated pipework to service a yet-to-be-constructed (by others) toilet facility; substantially reinstating the landform in the area immediately to the south of the lighthouse; and constructing a sealed walking track connecting the new car parks with the existing walkway leading to the cape lighthouse, and other various landscaping works.

In addition to the last 19 kilometres of State Highway 1 being sealed, attention is being paid to the unique nature of the surrounding environment. More than 150,000 plants grown in a nursery developed by local iwi Ngati Kuri will be used to revegetate the roadside and prevent erosion. The plants are being produced from locally gathered seeds to ensure they will be resistant to the cape area’s notoriously unforgiving climatic and soil conditions.

A lot of time, toil and money is going into upgrading the final 15 or so minutes of the long drive to one of New Zealand’s most iconic and remote attractions. Is it worth it?

The NZTA thinks so. It says visitor numbers are growing by about five percent annually and are expected to increase more steeply once sealing is completed. Tour operators will benefit from less wear and tear on big coaches and a sealed highway is likely to mean rental-car companies will reverse their policy of not insuring their vehicles if they are driven to the cape.

The NZTA also points to the wider safety and environmental improvements. It says sealing will put an end to the dangerous clouds of dust and the loose gravel on the road surface, benefiting all road users and the local ecosystem.

United Civil Construction, a major provider of Northland infrastructure for many years (see separate story), is happy to play a key role in this progressive enterprise.

“It’s not all about dollars and cents,” Andrew Campbell says of United’s approach to projects.

“It’s not just a business, it’s something more than that for us. It’s also about being able to stand back, look at a job well done and say, ‘We did that’.” 

Contractor Vol.32  No.10  November 2008
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