Truck driver and advocate Antony Alexander rounds out the current series on the appalling state of SH5, the Napier-Taupo road.
Two years ago I started a crusade – for want of a better word – campaigning to have major upgrades funded to fix some of the issues on the Napier to Taupo section of SH5. In that time, there have been at least eight deaths and countless injuries on this section of road. I know that there are other roads in New Zealand with the same issues, but being a user of the Napier- Taupo it is close to my heart. In the corridor management plan for SH5, there are no capital works scheduled for the road for the next 10 years. The $12 million dollars that is budgeted for 2020/21 is for the whole of the Hawke’s Bay state highway network. (National has announced that it will allocate $200 million alone to SH5 if elected, so that should give you an idea of the shortfall that NZTA is facing when trying to decide what, if anything, gets upgraded on the road.) NZTA system manager Hawke’s Bay Oliver Postings stated that NZTA is “having to spend money where the need is greatest based on asset management data and evidence”. Recent works filling in potholes and other repairs has seen funds redirected to SH5 and indeed SH2, the Napier to Wairoa road. As it is, the total budget allocated would only cover about 600km of the entire Hawke’s Bay network at the average costing of $20,000 per kilometre, but with money being diverted to repairs, that’s essentially taking funds away from scheduled works within the entire network, which in turn means a continuous game of catch-up. Latest figures released by NZTA senior manager Wayne Oldfield state that there were more than 3000 repairs made on the road in the past five years, although those figures were unable to differentiate whether the repairs were temporary or permanent.
As someone who travels the road 12 times a week, I can pretty much state that a lot of the repairs that I see have to be completed three or four times before the work is of a decent standard. One of the questions I ask often is why the New Zealand government, or in fact successive governments, isn’t putting more money into safety improvements when Julie Ann Genter has publicly stated that she expected the NZTA to prioritise safety upgrades to the most dangerous roads? As stated in a previous article, NZTA is spending $13 million to upgrade the Taupo arterial route because of three deaths in 10 years, and they want to reduce the potential of more happening. So the question needs to be asked often, why is the money not coming to SH5 with eight deaths in six months, or indeed other state highways within the entire country? Chris Bishop, National’s transport spokesman, recently said that the road was “dangerous” and that the road conditions “were not good enough” during his recent pledge to allocate funds for Hawke’s Bay. He also said that the road wasn’t designed for current volumes or loads. It’s interesting to note that the issues that he stated were nearly word for word from the statement of Paul Michaelsen, who is the AA Hawke’s Bay chairman.
Bear in mind the pledge from Bishop is just that, a pledge. National first has to get into power. Stuart Nash, Labour’s police minister, countered by saying that National couldn’t order NZTA to do anything and that Labour were planning to significantly increase the maintenance budget within the next five years. He also agreed that the road was unforgiving. So to the standard old road user such as myself it shows both National and Labour are aware of the issues on the road and that they have just ignored them in the past. In my mind, Genter is more prepared to do the high profile ‘upgrades’ like wire barriers on straight roads, than spend decent money to actually do proper upgrades on existing state highways. NZTA, however, has undertaken to complete a technical assessment on the road based on speed limits, crash history, average speeds, volume of vehicles, and developments of surrounding areas. Just for the record, I don’t agree with dropping the speed limits, but making the road safer for the limits that are imposed as the law stands. It is interesting to note, however, that NZTA has installed electronic ‘slow down’ signs on the Te Pohue curve, and also just south of Te Pohue, in an effort to slow vehicles down before out of context bends. Barriers have also been installed to try and reduce the chance of an off-road excursion. In my opinion, as a truckie, there are many areas that need to be concentrated on. This includes widening, corner straightening, realignments in areas where possible, more proactive policing of the road, more VMS signs, and certainly better cellphone coverage. Barriers should be placed in multiple areas where there are large drop-offs, and in recent years, there have been some major improvements in this area.
Recently I contacted NZTA and Downers, who is the contractor for the northern part of the road. The correspondence was in regard to the scabbing of the road surface just south of the Waipunga Falls. Over the past six months there have been at least six crashes on a very short section of road, including one car into a large hole not protected by a barrier, one into the barrier, and two over a very large drop into a river. These crashes have been relatively minor with no serious injuries, but the potential is there. There have been another five or six near the Okoeke Stream bridge, where cars have slipped, slid, or dived off the road – some into the bush, some into wire fences protecting the road from falling boulders. Again, I indicated this would point to another section in need of serious attention. The reply from an unnamed engineer from Downers stated: “Unfortunately, although the drop-off in this location has previously been identified, there are other locations on the central Waikato network that pose a higher risk. Funding applications for safety improvements were targeted at these other locations rather than this site.” So they are aware of the issues. They are aware that the area needs resealing. They are aware of the number of crashes, but funding has been applied for elsewhere. Whatever happened to preventing deaths before they happen, which is the explanation being used for the $13 million being spent on the Taupo arterial? The next question then should be, why are the contractors and local NZTA area managers not being vocal about what they need? If they are being vocal, why are they being ignored? It’s all well and good bringing out the Road to Zero policy, but surely they need to be listening to the very agency that should be advising them of issues on New Zealand’s highways. All the issues.
On 6 August, stuff.co.nz reporter Georgia-May Gilbertson wrote an article where a retired road safety engineer contradicted himself where he stated, “The road isn’t dangerous but the speed limits are”. He then went on to say that in some areas, the road is flushed, that it needed maintenance, that the ‘slippery when wet’ signs indicated that the surface didn’t meet skid resistance protocols, and that it had a lot of “out of context curves”. I guess we the public need to make up our own minds on whether it’s dangerous or not then. Postings states: “To make the road safer, we would look to apply the safe system approach to the corridor, so a suite of safe roadside interventions (engineering fixes, barriers, new seals, etc), safe and appropriate speeds, as well as enforcement. The reality is people will make mistakes on all roads; the key is to make the environment forgiving and enable people to survive. There is no one solution that would solve all of the accidents unfortunately.” The Road to Zero campaign involves creating a more forgiving road system that protects people from death and serious injury when they crash. I wholeheartedly believe that in principle the campaign needs to continue, but really take a long, hard look at where the crashes are happening. Sooner or later, in areas like the Waipunga area, the minor injury crashes are going to be fatal. Along with making the roads more forgiving, there needs to be a proactive policing campaign to encourage drivers to be more vigilant, more courteous, and pay attention to the conditions a lot more closely. I can’t tell you how many times in the course of my campaign I’ve heard people say, “it’s not the road, it’s the drivers”. Yes, people make mistakes, but the road condition or the safety features of that road are going to be the deciding factor in whether they live or die. It’s time that the people who hold the purse strings sit up and listen. At the moment, a white line is more often than not the difference between whether you are going to make it home or not.