Arterial road whistleblower: cover ups, incompetence and QLDC tantrums

by Kim Bowden - Mar 19, 2024

An experienced worker on Queenstown's costly arterial road has made claims of cover ups, incompetence and even public temper tantrums from a Queenstown Lakes District Council manager.

However, when put to them, the council has ignored some of the claims, and denied others. 

The whistleblower, who Crux will not name, says their motivation for speaking up comes after reading on Crux the explanation provided by the council as to why 1,349 square metres of freshly laid asphalt was ripped up in recent weeks.

"We're in the tea room, looking at the article you guys wrote, and we were like, 'This is all bullshit'. So I got the short straw and the boys were like, 'You should give Crux a call'."

Initially, the council claimed cooler weather undermined the quality of the newly-poured road, forcing a re-do. A day later, after questioning by Crux, the story changed and the culprit for the fault became a piece of testing equipment that had thrown up false readings.

Yesterday, Crux was told of other factors at play that day, by the worker who says they were there on the job and watched it all unfold firsthand.

They blame an inexperienced ring-in crew from out of town, an ill-prepared site, and bad decision making by managers for the fault.

They say the area to be asphalted "was a complete mess".

"It was disorganised, there was stuff everywhere. The asphalt truck pulled up and while we were cleaning up the site and getting the site ready the asphalt was sitting in the truck too long and it cooled down.

"They ended up laying it, which they shouldn't have.

"The asphalt needs to be a certain temperature when it's poured onto the road surface."

The new information was provided to the alliance, via the council's communications team, as Crux has been directed to do with all questions pertaining to the arterial road project.

In response, a council communications person reiterated information supplied to Crux in the days after the incident, offering no comment on the claims of poor planning, inexperience or mismanagement. 

They say the asphalt is being re-done by the contractors because it did not meet quality specifications.

"This is something that happens on worksites, and was picked up in the quality control process. The critical thing for QLDC is to make sure that the new asphalt is up to standard in the years to come."

However, it is the worker's view the problems that day were not a one-off, and are illustrative of ongoing issues with the culture of the construction project.

"This is the incompetence - I see it all the time.

"You've got very junior engineers onsite, that have got no experience, that are making decisions without any leadership, without any proper management."

Work underway on a section of stage one of the arterial road, Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

It seems difficult to wrap your head around this claim, when Queenstown Lakes District Councillors were told by a top manager from the roading alliance delivering the arterial road that there were between 40 to 60 managers working on it as recently as the council's February meeting.

But the whistleblower worker thinks the alliance structure allows individual managers from different branches of the alliance to hide behind others - the buck ends with no one, and oversight by the council's elected members is impossible.

"They (the managers) all expect the person next to them is going to be making the decisions. It's the blind leading the blind.

"There's no accountability.

"There's not been enough of an actual onsite manager that's actually coming and going, 'Right, this is the plan, this is what we're doing', and it stems from the people that have created the alliance."

They claim workers have been told by managers during site meetings to keep their "mouths shut about what we see onsite", and that staff turnover is high.

"The money's not too bad, that's not the issue. The issue is that it's poorly run. You've got one person telling you to do one thing, another person telling you to do another."

Again, Crux put the claims regarding workers being warned off whistleblowing, and the issue of high staff turnover to the alliance - the response from the council ignored both questions.

The worker says it feels like the people on the tools with experience are not being listened to enough.

A whistleblowing worker says people with experience on the tools are not being listened to.

Then, there is the added tension they say workers feel when council staff visit the job. Our source specifically names one QLDC boss - but as the council denies all allegations, we will not name them - as well as a handful of other staff the workers do not recognise and cannot name, who they refer to as the QLDC boss' "lapdogs".

"You can just see the tension between the management and the engineers and the council staff, you know?

"That's the impression that I get...I don't see everything that goes on behind the scenes."

They say the senior council staffer comes across as "arrogant" and has been seen to lose their cool during a visit.

"(They) will come and have a tantrum, a temper tantrum, down onsite. We've seen (them) go off, you know, abusing, no abusing is probably a little bit too strong, because onsite we swear and all that sort of stuff, you know, call a spade a spade, but this (person, they are) just arrogant.

"(They'll) tell you to do something that completely contradicts what the management have said onsite. The council will come in and put in unrealistic expectations around performance that just don't work, that...we've said 'This is not going to work'.

"(They'll) just railroad it and we'll have to do that until, like, it doesn't work, and we have to go back to the original way of doing things."

When put to the council, a spokesperson says the claims about the manager "are completely without foundation and untrue".

They say the individual in question generally only visits the site once per month for a walkover with members of the alliance board and does not direct contractors when there.

However, the Crux source maintains the dysfunction at the site is "plainly obvious to anyone with any experience".

The project is being delivered by Kā Huanui a Tāhuna (the Whakatipu Transport Programme Alliance) comprising the QLDC, the New Zealand Transport Agency, Beca, Downer, Fulton Hogan and WSP.

The overall budget for the first stage of the road has now ballooned to more than $128 million, after councillors in February approved a further $17.65 million to get it built.

There is no funding available for stages two and three of the planned road, although a business case for it assumes their completion, earning it the title of 'the road to nowhere'.

Read more:

Crux site visit: little evidence of arterial road work

Pedestrian overbridge axed as arterial road cost-cutting continues

Tourists being blamed for $2m of Queenstown's arterial road blowout

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