It’s Easter – take care out there on our roads

In a horror week, 26 people died on our roads in the first few days of April.

Amid all the hand-wringing and muddled thinking, there remains one unpalatable and inconvenient truth: New Zealand has some of the worst roads in the developed world.

At this point in our history there should be, at the very least, a six-lane motorway between Whangarei and Wellington. Ditto Christchurch and Dunedin, not to mention a network of four-lane highways linking regional cities.

Instead we have a patchwork of good, bad and downright dangerous roads, mainly twolane, thanks to years of procrastination by our politicians.

For example, a fully-completed motorway between Auckland and Whangarei is long overdue and vital for Northland’s economic survival.

But there still remains a large body of naysayers implacably opposed to such a proposal, disparagingly referring to it as a holiday highway for the well-heeled.

As a result, the carnage continues on notorious black spots like Dome Valley where emergency services are constantly extricating dead or dying people from mangled vehicles.

Police now refer to this stretch of highway as the “killing fields”.

The human cost is immeasurable yet we do nothing meaningful about addressing some of the most dangerous roads in regional New Zealand.

Instead, we have band-aid remedial measures that fail miserably to address the root cause of the problem – a singular lack of four-lane highways with median barriers.

If anything sums up the penny-pinching and blinkered political thinking on our highways it’s Wellington’s Transmission Gully motorway.

It could, and should, have been built 70 years ago but only now is it under construction.

In so many areas New Zealanders show vision, enterprise and an admirable can-do attitude.

State Highway One north of Kaikoura, wiped out in a major earthquake in 2016, was rebuilt in just 13 months, a massive engineering feat and a great example of what we can do when we put our minds to it.

But regrettably this was an exception. So often we come up woefully short when it comes to developing our roading infrastructure.

This became apparent to me a year or two ago during a road trip the length and breadth of Croatia, a country with much in common with New Zealand in terms of topography and population.

Though caught up in a bloody war of independence between 1991 and 1995, Croatia now boasts a network of extremely well-engineered motorways and road tunnels that would be the envy of any country.

Driving there was a pleasure and yes, there were tolls to be paid on most of the main highways. But they weren’t extortionate and, in my view, were a small price to pay for the comfort, safety and speed they afforded.

I lost count of the number of tunnels that I drove through, some of considerable length, and it left me wondering why we haven’t embraced them in a similarly mountainous country like New Zealand.

Road tunnels through the Kaimais and Remutakas, for example, are no-brainers and it almost defies belief that they weren’t incorporated with the rail tunnels drilled through both ranges all those years ago.

As a result, here we are in 2019, still expecting motorists and truckers to negotiate tortuous, time-consuming and dangerous mountain passes all over the country because we don’t want to spend the money bringing New Zealand into the 21st century.

There’s no question that tunnels are seriously bigticket items but we should be far more proactive in encouraging public/private partnerships for such ventures.

Bottom line, most New Zealanders are not averse to paying tolls if they can drive to destinations in a safe and timely manner.

But here’s the thing – there is actually a large pot of money for addressing many of these issues.

Last year Transport Minister Phil Twyford announced a record $16.9 billion investment in land transport over a three-year period, of which regional roads will receive $5.8b.

On the face of it this is seriously good news but that’s not how it’s seen by those living in regions that have some of our most dangerous roads.

As far as Andrew Hollis, founder of Tauranga lobby group Fix the Bloody Roads, is concerned, the government has its priorities completely wrong.

“If it was about safety, then surely the most dangerous road in New Zealand would be sorted out first and State Highway Two, from Tauranga to Katikati, is demonstrably the most dangerous road in New Zealand,” he says.

Instead of a $520 million upgrade to a modern fourlane highway with median barriers, as promised by National before it lost the last election, it will now get safety improvements over five years costing $87.1m.

In other words, more rumble strips, shoulder widening, and sticks and wires down the middle of a road that, by any stretch of the imagination, is an absolute death-trap.

As someone rather crudely but aptly pointed out to me, “All they are doing is pi**ing around the edges.”

To put this into context, the Western Bay of Plenty has experienced explosive growth in recent years with Tauranga now eclipsing Dunedin as New Zealand’s fifth largest city.

As part of the so-called Golden Triangle, which also includes Auckland and Hamilton, Tauranga and its booming port is a pivotal part of New Zealand’s economy.

But two out of its three principal gateways are no longer fit for purpose, groaning under huge volumes of vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and posing major safety concerns.

Ironically the one bearing the least amount of traffic, the so-called Tauranga Eastern Link, was transformed into a magnificent four lane highway a few years ago at a cost of $500m.

As Americans would say, go figure.

In the meantime the key entry point, State Highway 2 from Waihi to Tauranga, remains a shambles and is not fit for purpose.

I know this from personal experience, having moved from Auckland to the Western Bay a few years ago.

It is no exaggeration to say that driving along it is like traversing a war zone.

According to Andrew Hollis, motorists are eight times more likely to die on some sections of it than on any other highway in New Zealand.

And caught in the middle of this minefield are little country towns like Katikati which has to contend with 30,000 cars and 1000 trucks rumbling through its choked main street every day.

Such is the congestion that traffic is sometimes backed up for 20 kilometres on either side of the town.

All of which is making it almost impossible for emergency services to attend, in a timely manner, the many serious accidents that regularly occur along the highway.

In the past eight years there’ve been 26 deaths and 52 serious injuries so believe me it’s not a road for the faint-hearted.

By any yardstick upgrading the road into a modern four lane highway with a median barrier should be a top priority.

But thanks to Twyford’s priority list this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Clearly he had more important priorities, and these included earmarking $3.7b for a controversial tram service to Auckland airport along Dominion Rd.

The merits are highly contentious with a growing body of influential people believing a train service to the airport would be a cheaper and more efficient alternative.

They warn the debacle in Sydney about a light rail network has parallels with Auckland. This was a pet project of the new Federal government but infrastructure experts warned against it, saying it would be a disaster.

It now faces massive cost blow-outs; the company building it is on the verge of collapse.

Many businesses along the route, which has carved up inner city roads for years, have gone broke and government compensation has been paid out to more than 50 others.

Edinburgh has also learnt the hard way about the economic perils of such pet projects.

Its problem-plagued tram system, including a line from the city centre to the airport, finally opened three years behind schedule, more than two times over budget and limited to a network half the size of what was planned.

Roads in the Edinburgh city centre were dug up for the best part of seven years, causing congestion, inconvenience and financial harm to businesses.

The chairman of Transport Edinburgh branded the project “hell on wheels”, while the city council’s chief executive described it as a “shambles.”

You might think all of this would ring alarm bells for Twyford but it seems he’s oblivious to the costly debacle that could well lie ahead.

Whatever the pros and cons of the Auckland airport tramway, the substantive argument is whether Twyford has his priorities right.

What is more important – saving lives on deadly regional highways or spending up large on an ideologically-driven project that risks becoming a white elephant?

To many people the answer would seem obvious but not, it seems, to the minister.

Which begs the question: what price does the government put on human lives?

The $3.7b set aside for the tramway could build six or seven state-of-the-art four-lane highways similar in length to the one proposed between Tauranga and Katikati.

And then, of course, there’s Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones dispensing $3b worth of largesse on some very questionable projects.

Imagine if this sum of money were set aside for what the regions need most - four-lane highways with median barriers - and what this would mean in terms of saving lives and increasing productivity.

In the meantime, ordinary New Zealanders at the sharp end of this debate, like those behind the Fix The Bloody Road campaign, must resort to raising money on Givealittle pages to publicise the ongoing carnage on their killer roads.

Rod Vaughan is a freelance journalist based in Katikati

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