Warnings of potential Harbour Bridge closure 'way too over cautious', hurting Auckland economy, EMA says

An Auckland business representative says the issuing of alerts that threaten to close the Auckland Harbour Bridge is overkill and happening too often. 

On Sunday, NZTA issued an amber and a red alert for the bridge for Monday. Under an amber alert, speeds are reduced and some lanes on the bridge may close. A red alert sees all lanes on the bridge are closed. 

On Monday, there were multiple lanes closed on the bridge and speed limits were reduced to 30 kilometres an hour at one stage when wind gusts picked up, but the bridge never closed. 

It caused major delays in commuting and even saw people missing work or staying home to avoid the disruptions.

The bridge closures have become more frequent since a "freak" gust of wind pushed a truck into the bridge and damaged it in 2020. 

EMA's Head of Advocacy, Strategy and Finance Alan McDonald told AM on Monday the warnings are an overkill. 

"I just wonder if we're being way too overcautious. We've had decades and decades of relatively strong winds in Auckland and we never used to close to the Harbour Bridge," he said. 

"A couple of years back, we had a truck hit the bridge caused some structural damage and now it seems we're getting warnings fortnightly, monthly and people just don't turn up for work." 

The warnings of a potential bridge closure also affect businesses in the Auckland CBD.

Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Bridges believes the bridge is closing more frequently than it used to. 

"What would be good to know is whether this is due to resiliency issues increasing as the bridge ages or whether the risk tolerance of officials is decreasing," Bridge told Stuff

"In either case, we need to understand this more. Every time the Bridge shuts the productivity of Auckland takes a real hit. Workers can't get to their workplaces and trucks can't get their freight to its endpoints disrupting businesses for the worse."

McDonald backed up that sentiment saying even though the bridge didn't close on Monday, people stayed home in fear of the traffic chaos that would result if the bridge closed. 

"Yesterday [Monday] we had warnings all day and we didn't close the bridge, but people didn't go to work, people left early, meetings were missed, factory shifts may have been affected, freight deliveries or deliveries around the city would've been missed," he explained. 

"When they missed those flights for export, in particular, for perishable goods, that diminishes the value of their export container or whatever's going out in those planes and that's problematic."

He told AM co-host Laura Tupou it was time for a review of the closure policy and risk profiles for the bridge.

"Should we be looking at those thresholds? Are they too low? If you are thinking about closing it, could you either make a decision one way or the other? I mean, a whole day of disruption because we might close it, that's really not good enough," he told AM. 

"It went from 12pm to 9pm. Then we are going to close it at 6pm, then we're going to close it at 7pm, then they didn't close it in the end. That sort of ongoing uncertainty, disruption, you can't manage or plan for and it just doesn't work."

The current threshold for closure of the bridge is a recorded wind gust of 90km/h or over for perpendicular winds, or 105km/h for oblique winds.

Chief executive of Waka Kotahi Nicole Rosie penned a letter responding to the EMA's claims they're over-cautious on closures for the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Rosie said they have a robust monitoring and management system in place to protect public safety and the bridge from damage in severe weather.

She added Waka Kotahi has a responsibility to protect public safety and the structural integrity of the bridge.

"As you will be aware, following an incident in September 2020 when strong wind gusts blew a truck against the overarch of the Auckland Harbour Bridge (AHB) and damaged the structure, the bridge was closed for two and a half weeks, with a five-day full bridge closure required to replace a damaged bridge strut," Rosie said.

"These closures and lane restrictions caused significant disruptions for Aucklanders and a major loss of productivity for businesses in the region."

The current thresholds are evidence-based and in line with international best practice, Rosie said, before adding Waka Kotai doesn't make decisions to lower speeds, close lanes or close the bridge "lightly at all".

"Our top priority is always protecting the safety of bridge users, and protecting the bridge structure. We make no apologies for this," Rosie said. 

Mark Hackett, who is the real-time operations manager for the Auckland Transport Operations Centre (ATOC), told NZ Herald decisions around bridge closures are based on safety. 

"I want to make sure that nobody doesn't get home that night," he said. 

"We reevaluated our matrix to make sure that we're pretty much using international best practice." 

Hackett said the decision to issue an alert is not made lightly.

"We deal a lot with the MetService in their briefings and we also bring in our partners, duty engineers and when that decision is made, it's a collaborative approach between a group of people," he explained. 

"We don't want to disturb Aucklanders' travel. We want to make them move better. We love our bridge, it's a key piece of infrastructure to us and we know when it's impacted, it affects everybody, ourselves included. So we want to actually make sure that we're protecting the bridge and our road use."

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