Grant McLachlan - Hawke's Bay Today - Column
Napier to Taupō road a sign of the country going backwards
"For much of this country's history, the (Napier-Taupō) road represented strides in New Zealand's progress."
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If you thought that the country is moving backwards, the proposal to reduce the speed limit on much of the Napier to Taupō road confirms your worst fears.
For much of this country's history, the road represented strides in New Zealand's progress. What once took days from junction to junction can now be achieved in 90 minutes.
Road sealing, deviations, realignments, new bridges, and passing lanes replaced choking dust, corrugations, and potholes.
Following one major washout on the Okoeke Stream deviation in the 1980s, a detour along the old road, now known as Pohokura Road, reminded many of how far we've come.
Driving along the highway, I often look for remnants of old windy sections. Many of the deviations that have improved the journey were constructed not long ago. And then the improvements stopped. The road is now littered with potholes, corrugations, and hasty repairs. The proposed lowering of the speed limit on the Napier to Taupō road is effectively a 30-year backward step.
The mindset of the roading industry has changed. Instead of improving roads for the motorists, motorists are restricted due to the deterioration of the roads.
Across the country, speed limits are being lowered. Instead of maintaining or improving roads, it is "safer" that vehicles travel slower. In many places, what was often an "open road" 100km/h stretch is now a confusing mess of 60km/h and 80km/h sections.
Temporary speed limits erected due to an uneven road surface become permanent signs.
Roading authorities are happy to oblige calls to lower speed limits. Parents work themselves into a frenzy to permanently lower speed limits outside schools when temporary speed limit signs would suffice.
Slow drivers want everyone else to drive the same speed as them – which other motorists already do because they are stuck behind them.
According to the NZTA's own planning manual, lowering the speed limit from 100km/h to 80km/h potentially allows the doubling of accessways on to a state highway.
Developers and speculators jump at the opportunity to improve the potential and value of their land.
It is inexcusable that with the advances in motoring – whether it be cruise control, fuel economy, safety, or the enormous trucks now allowed on our roads – and with the increased revenue it receives from tolls, regional and national fuel taxes that the roading authorities fail to keep up.
The central problem is that there are too many bureaucrats and consultants paid to go to as much effort as possible to achieve as little as possible.
By the time that they realise that work needs to be done, they've already exhausted their budget.
I was involved in a campaign to improve one of the country's worst intersections. Fortunately, our team had some of the most experienced transport engineers in the country.
After the NZTA completed studies, reports, and consultation, they'd wasted $5m deciding on a design very similar to our original proposal. Now, they've delayed construction because they "can't secure funding", which in turn has quadrupled the project's cost to $18m.
The maths that justifies most projects doesn't add up. It seems counter-intuitive to build a road to "save on journey times" if traffic congestion fills the Government's coffers with more fuel tax income.
A motorway bypassing a town was justified by suggesting that most traffic drove through the town without stopping. The NZTA didn't track the traffic. Instead, they developed a model. A group filmed licence plates at either end of the town and discovered that two-thirds of the traffic through the town was local traffic and wouldn't need the motorway.
The NZTA revised their model so that most traffic using the motorway would head towards the town being bypassed.
It seems that the NZTA is happy to fudge numbers to suit its case.
If they are happy to spend $844m on 19km of motorway for what could amount to less than 10,000 vehicles per day, then why haven't we seen the Hutt Motorway extended to the Wairarapa? Based on NZTA's "assessment criteria", a motorway between Hastings and Napier should have been built decades ago!
The closure of the Manawatū Gorge, which used to carry 7620 vehicles daily on average, and the delays to build an alternative route highlights how traffic volumes are selectively given more weight in decision making than the importance of connectivity to regional centres.
The Napier to Taupō Road, which carries a high proportion of heavy vehicles, might carry 3,257 vehicles daily on average but is a crucial supply and tourism link.
Even State Highway 3 between Hamilton and New Plymouth, which carries as little as 2441 vehicles on average, is getting more funding for works from the NZTA than the Napier to Taupō road.
With all the crazy math aside, the reality is that it takes public pressure to get infrastructure built. I hope that the backlash to lowering the speed limit on the Napier to Taupō road marks a turning point as the direction we're heading isn't getting us to where we should be any sooner.