News | 16 February 2021
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The vibrant life of a city engineer

For Veronica Byrne, making regular site visits has never been so easy. In other parts of the world, she’s had to drive long distances, trek, or be flown to sites to supervise the development of roads, bridges, flood protection schemes and runways.

Engineer Veronica Byrne, dressed in a yellow hard hat and a hi-vis orange jacket, smiling while on the phone standing at a work site around Oriental Bay.

Veronica is the Wellington City Council engineer overseeing the development of the new bike and walking paths and seawalls around Evans Bay.

In Papua New Guinea, she drove an armoured vehicle as the risks associated with getting to sites included potential ambush.  For safety reasons, and in case they had to get away quickly, they were trained to be able to drive and brake at high speed – skills she fortunately doesn’t need in Wellington.

In Western Australia, where she worked on new mining-related roads, infrastructure, and camps in the desert, getting to the site was two hours in a tiny plane followed by a five-hour drive.

“It has been so easy working here with the project just 10 minutes from the central city,” she says.

Originally from Bolivia, her early work involved putting in roads to indigenous communities or retaining walls and flood protection to prevent villages from being washed away.

Working in tough terrain – high in the Andes or tropical flood-prone lowlands– it was not unusual for her to have to hike several hours to remote sites.   

She supervised the building of roads that allowed villages to get potatoes and other crops to the city markets where previously the only option was carrying things out on foot.

“Some didn’t even have a foot bridge, so could potentially be cut-off for days or weeks when rivers were too high to cross.”

Veronica grew up and studied in Cochabamba. Bolivia’s third largest city, it is located in a valley in the Andes and has a population of about a million.

As a child, she would sometimes go on jobs with her father who was a newspaper photographer and was always fascinated with how things like roads and bridges were built.

When she graduated as a civil engineer, she worked in local government for about five years

Engineer Veronica Byrne briefing four workers on a rocky site. All are wearing hi-vis and hard hats.

“It was a huge challenge. I was only 26 and working on multiple contracts with multiple contractors.  All the contractors and workers were men, corruption was rife, and many of the contractors were used to doing low quality work in remote locations.

“My way was very different to how they had been used to working so the big challenge was changing the culture.

“These were Government-funded projects delivered by the local council. I believed we were there to provide a service and make a difference and that the local indigenous communities should be involved, treated with respect and left with good quality improvements that would stand the test of time.

“When we were putting in a road, we would build safe cycleways close by because bikes were the main local transport. The communities loved it. Going back now, it is amazing to see people still enjoying them.”

The political situation and other constraints meant she was keen to travel so she responded to an advert for civil engineers with little information about where the work was. She ended up in Papua New Guinea working for an Irish company that was installing mobile phone towers to provide local people with cheaper mobile phone and data charges. 

It was there that she met her husband Gerard Byrne. A New Zealander, he was working as a dive instructor and running a dive shop at a resort on New Britain Island. They moved back here a few years ago for a more settled lifestyle closer to family.

Three engineers dressed in hard hats and orange hi-vis jackets, helping position a giant boulder suspended by chain into place along the Cobham Drive.

Veronica has worked for Wellington City Council since May 2019 and has responsibility for the construction of the first sections of Tahitai, the new walking and biking route around Evans Bay which when complete will allow people to ride or scoot between Miramar and the central city  without having to ride on the road.

The new seawalls, paths and lookouts at Ōmarukaikuru/Pt Jerningham are finished, work is in full swing at Kio Bay, and finishing work is under way on Cobham Drive where major coastal protection and landscaping has been carried out in tandem with the development of better walking and bike paths.

“The improvements are designed for people of all ages and abilities so it’s really satisfying that as new sections of bike path are completed, I’m seeing more families and older people using them.

“Coming from an inland country, to be in Wellington working on projects like this next to the sea that involve civil, structural and environmental challenges really is a dream come true for me,” she says. “As an animal lover, I’ve also loved working on a project with wildlife.”

On Cobham Drive, she has worked with the Department of Conservation and Downer construction team to make sure the comings and goings of kororā/little blue penguins that nest and rest in the area are factored into planning and the way the site is managed day to day. She is also happy to be helping to create safer places for them.

Wellington City Council engineer Veronica Byrne, dressed in an orange hi-vis jacket and a yellow hard hat, with penguin detection dog Mena, on the rocks in Cobham Drive.

Digger operators worked at low tide to carefully remove more than 400 truckloads of potentially hazardous rusting steel, concrete, brickwork and other reclamation materials from the shoreline. These have been replaced by a 430m-long rock bank engineered to spread the force of the sea in strong northerlies and better protect the road and new paths from storm surges and erosion.

An added benefit is that the nooks and crannies between the boulders will provide penguins with plenty of great nesting spots.

Department of Conservation senior ranger biodiversity Brent Tandy says the project has been a good example of how things should be done, and this has been largely due to Veronica’s drive and commitment to work with the team to make penguin safety a high priority.

“It has been very refreshing to work with a construction project team where environmental and wildlife issues were seen as an enhancement to the area rather than a hinderance to progressing the work.”