The NZ Transport Agency is investigating a long-term solution to the Manawatu Gorge road link.
The Manawatu Gorge has been closed since 24 April when two major slips completely blocked the road. It was initially expected to reopen within a few weeks, but a series of further slips have seen it closed indefinitely.
Ross I’Anson, NZTA regional transport systems manager, says they had tried to reopen the road three times in the past three months.
“The thing that has changed is we’ve had this really large mass land movement, which is the size of a two-storey block of units. It’s a big rock face that’s meant to sit still and it’s moved 80mm in one month, which is significantly concerning seeing as it moved 60mm in the prior 18 months.”
I’Anson says it’s a matter of when, not if, another slip comes down.
“It will be bigger than the 2011 slip when it goes and someone will get caught in it I’m sure. It’s just too risky, too dangerous and we can’t put the public through there, so that’s why we’ve closed it.”
If money were no object and time wasn’t a barrier, I’Anson says something could be done with the gorge road, but it would be one of the more expensive and time consuming options. In addition, the Te Apiti – Manawatu Gorge Biodiversity Project would also mean it would be unlikely to get resource consent.
Several permanent fixes were considered in 2012 after the gorge had been closed for a year following a slip in 2011. They ranged from a tunnel to a new road near the Te Apiti wind farm, but expert advice at the time said those options were technically difficult and risky, so the decision was made to clear and reopen the gorge road, with $8.5 million invested in upgrading the Saddle Road. $20 million had been spent over the past five years repairing the Manawatu Gorge, with $15 million of that in 2011-12.
Three organisations have been invited to tender to investigate long-term options. I’Anson says information regarding their identity cannot be revealed during the tender process, but a meeting was scheduled for 28 July.
“They are three reputable, national organisations that we know are very good at this stuff, engineering and geotechnical consultants. We’re going to say to them, ‘this is what we’re trying to achieve, here’s a rough scope so you’re all pricing on the same thing, these are the limits if you like, of where we’d look, and this is the outcome we want at the end of it’, which will be a single corridor to put forward to the transport agency board to get approval for funding to go forward and do investigations and design.”
I’Anson says they would be looking at an advanced delivery model so they could get straight into design construction, dependent on consenting and property purchase.
“So there are some other considerations before we can actually kick off and get it started. Our tender is based around have they got resource available, and what’s the capability of that resource.”
In the short term, NZTA is improving signage, pavement marking, surfacing and maintenance of the Saddle Road, and improving traffic flow in Ashhurst.
“I think we can resolve a few issues in Ashhurst by putting some traffic calming in around the pedestrian crossing in Cambridge Street and the side streets to try and stop people taking multiple routes to get through town.
“In the medium-term we’re looking to achieve a bypass of Ashhurst. The bypass we’re looking at is a current paper road, it’s partially formed but obviously we’ve got people living along the road. No matter what we do, we’re going to be affecting people’s lives.”
I’Anson says the gorge closure has had an impact on Ashhurst residents and these measures are trying to minimise that impact.
“I totally feel for them, they’re going from a very quiet idyllic lifestyle to possibly having a state highway run past their doorstep. So that’s one concern for us, and we’re also looking at how we join back onto the state highway.
“And at Woodville we’ve got the opposite, where they haven’t got people going through and they do want them and it’s a kind of a yin and yang with the two of them.”
The two intersections being changed are Oxford Road/Woodland Road,
and the end of Woodland Road that joins SH 3. I’Anson says when motorists get to a cross intersection, they have to make a decision as to where they go.
“We’re going to take that decision away, if you like, by realigning the corners to make them curves, and putting the side road around the curves so you have to go right around the curve and double-back to get back on any bypass or detour.”
NZTA is talking to landowners between the Saddle Road and Woodville, and hopes to make these changes soon. At present the Tararua District Council estimates about 74% of traffic goes through Woodville, and this will increase that to at least 95%.
I’Anson says the Saddle Road improvements will also benefit Woodville residents who work on the western side of the ranges. The upgrade project includes widening, strengthening, and putting in safety improvements such as signage, guardrails and sight rails. On one section an additional passing lane will be added.
“It’s a huge improvement from what it was in 2011. The one issue we will still have after we do that is all the passing opportunities are uphill, so we’ll be looking at some additional ones going downhill to reduce that frustration at either end. All of that will happen before the end of this coming summer. I’m not sure if we’ll get all of the downhill passing opportunities in but we will work hard to get at least one each way and maybe some more as well.”
In addition to managing and maintaining the Saddle Road, NZTA is in discussions with Palmerston North City and Tararua District Councils about managing and maintaining the Pahiatua Track.
“We’re also in discussion with Tararua as to whether that extends to Ballance Valley Road and Nikau Road through Mangamaire. There are quite a few people going down to the Wairarapa who turn off down Nikau Road.”
I’Anson says while those three roads are in reasonably good condition, drivers needed to take extra caution on Nikau and Ballance Valley Roads.
“Nikau Road is not too bad for the majority of it, there are areas where it’s narrow, whereas going through Ballance, the roads are all narrow, there are drop-offs, poor visibility in places, and there are a lot of heavy vehicles going over that way. Fonterra have told us they will be sending about 50 truck and trailer loads a day – full in one direction and empty in the other – at the end of August, as the season ramps up.”
Although a final decision is yet to be made on the long-term alternative route, I’Anson says a completely new road is likely.
“Some of the suggestions we’ve had from locals in Ashhurst is ‘you should put the long-term alternative on the southern side of the Manawatu Gorge because you can’t have a state highway going through Ashhurst’. And they keep coming back to that, thinking that if it’s on the Saddle Road side, we would just make Ashhurst the state highway but we just wouldn’t do that, we would just bypass Ashhurst. One, because it’s going to impact too heavily on them as traffic grows, and also it would slow down the traffic, so the only win-win we’d get is by bypassing.”
I’Anson says despite the importance to the region, the new road would not be classed as a RONS (Road of National Significance).
“It’s not a RONS, but we’re looking at the same criteria, if you like. We have no road and we need a road. It must be resilient, it must be efficient, it must be safe, it must be the best road we can build to provide access east-west. At a meeting with local stakeholders in Ashhurst the Minister talked about economic development and growth, the link between the distribution hub here in the Manawatu-Wanganui region through to the Port of Napier and the national market and international markets. We are absolutely aware and need to look at something that’s going to be easy for transport operators to traverse, whatever that is, as well as make it safe for the general public and commuters. While it won’t be a road of national significance, we need to get it right the first time.”
I’Anson was asked if the new route would have any effect on other roading projects in the region.
“That’s not a yes or a no answer. Every project in New Zealand needs to stack up in terms of our investment criteria, and the ones that we have going at the moment all stack up very well. So if you looked at the work we’ve got going on at the moment, this would just be another project rather than a replacement project.
“We’re working on some key issues like the Kairanga-Bunnythorpe Road, Napier Road, and they’re all at about the same stage of detailed investigation for options, which is what will happen with the gorge. Once we get that process finished, we then go forward with an option that meets our investment criteria so we can go to the next stage. We do that with every individual project, rather than saying ‘which one do you put forward, which one don’t you put forward?’ So for us, it’s let’s put them all forward to get investigated.”
Although the new route will be guaranteed to have an impact on those employed in the transport industry, I’Anson says he has heard very little from them.
“I’ve been in contact with Nigel Shaw from Fonterra about their movements, and with Tom Cloke and Sandy Walker from the Road Transport Association. I appreciate they don’t pick up everyone, but we’ve been in close contact and they’ve been putting out messages. The difficult thing for us is who is covered through the RTA and who’s not, who do we contact.”
Due to the other Manawatu projects NZTA is working on, I’Anson says they are starting to gain access to some of the industry players.
“We’re producing a weekly update, and we have a new email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a website (www.nzta.govt.nz/manawatu-gorge) and we’re encouraging people to email us and register to get those updates. It would be great also if in their emails, if they are in the transport industry, they said ‘I’d also like to be part of the consultation for the long-term east-west connection’ because the more people we get from the transport industry, the better.
“Make contact if you need to, through the email address, and keep an eye on the website. If anything significant changes in terms of their business, like with Fonterra, it would be really good for them to feed that back to us. The hardest thing is when we don’t get the opportunity to try and do some advance works and we’re seen to be slow in that, which is probably a fair call, but sometimes it’s because people haven’t told us ‘hey, in two months’ time we’re going to be doing this and it’s going to be this huge increase and what can you do for us?’”
Tenders close in mid-August and a final recommendation is expected in December. That would then go out for public consultation and I’Anson says a permanent fix is expected within three years.
“We’ve got clear instructions to get this right and make sure we’re doing the right thing, because we have got a situation which has thrown everyone out of kilter. It’s a very difficult situation not just for us to manage but also for transport operators to traverse, in terms of the corridor, and for ratepayers in Ashhurst and Woodville. There are no winners here at the moment, so that’s why we need to get it right in terms of the long-term option.”
Photos NZ Transport Agency
Showing the slips in the Manawatu Gorge in April and May this year