One of the major partners in the construction of Tauranga's promised congestion-busting Harbour Link expressway has sparked a row by calling for the project to be put back a year.
Chris Allen, Transit New Zealand regional manager, announced today that all new major roading projects in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty _ including the $240 million Harbour Link _ would be delayed at least 12 months because of an anticipated drop in fuel tax revenue.
The unexpected Transit move has shocked supporters of the project, including New Zealand First, Tauranga MP Bob Clarkson, Tauranga City Council and Tolls Action Group.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and his deputy Peter Brown believe the crucial Harbour Link roading project will still start on time, saying a government grant of up to $150 million will be made available in the May budget.
Mr Brown said: "Don't even think about it. I don't know how to spell the word `delay' and we are on the case. We will not accept a second's delay, let alone one year.
"Winston has been talking to the Minister of Finance and I've had regular contact with the Minister of Transport, and both Winston and I are very confident new money for Harbour Link is there," said Mr Brown.
"We are going to deliver on this _ Transit with the best will in the world doesn't call the shots. The region needs Harbour Link."
Transit's funder, Land Transport New Zealand, has predicted $685 million less revenue for new roading projects over the next decade, and Transit has already been told to cut its expenditure by $35 million nationally for its present financial year.
Transit had earlier agreed Harbour Link _ consisting of a duplicate harbour bridge, a connecting overland viaduct from Takitimu Drive, and completion of Hewletts Rd four-laning _ would start during its 2006-07 financial year.
But in Transit's latest 10-year state highway plans, the start of construction is scheduled for 2007/08 and would take at least three years to complete, finishing no earlier than the end of 2010.
The proposed $180 million eastern arterial expressway bypassing Te Puke and $35 million Te Maunga-Domain Rd four-laning is now set down for 2014/15. It was hoped work on those would start soon after Harbour Link is completed.
But other Western Bay projects _ the Tauranga northern arterial, Te Puna-Omokoroa four-laning and Katikati bypass, totalling $240 million _ are still off the Transit 10-year radar.
The planned schedule will now go out for public consultation, and public hearings will be held in April.
The Transit board will then confirm its latest schedule in late May.
Tauranga City Council has completed the Harbour Link specimen design, made all the land purchases, and is ready to tender the big contract.
The council was aiming to make a start by the end of this year, with completion by the end of 2009 _ and the New Zealand First and city leaders are determined to keep to this schedule.
Mr Brown, who participated in the supply and confidence arrangements with the present Government, said a Crown allocation of up to $150 million would be made available after July 1, as and when the Harbour Link project required it.
A stipulation of the New Zealand First support was that tolling would not reappear on the harbour bridge and Harbour Link would become a fully-funded state highway project.
Transit had already indicated it would put in $120 million of the total costs and under the New Zealand First agreement the other half, replacing toll money, would be covered by a special government grant.
Mr Brown said the funding was a crucial point in his party's supply and confidence negotiations with Labour.
"It was a one-off thing, but it was very high priority for us and I can't see them reneging if they want to survive."
Stephen Town, Tauranga City Council's chief executive, was confident Harbour Link could still start during the next financial year.
"We have made it quite clear that the project is ready to go and our expectation is that there will be no delay. If the Peters-Cullen deal delivers the funding from July, then we can draw down on that and get started.
"The Transit forecast isn't upset, because we wouldn't require their money for a year or so. The community would be disappointed if there was any delay," said Mr Town.
Tauranga MP Bob Clarkson said a delay to Harbour Link would be more than a setback for the city.
"The congestion is destroying Tauranga and productivity is out the window if you can't travel from A to B. Waiting up to five years for a new bridge is bad enough, and another year on top of that is over the moon."