There has been a lot of discussion in the media about the terribly high number of people that died during the Easter break, the highest since 1994 apparently. One of those deaths was on the Dome Valley road – a notorious stretch of State Highway One between Warkworth and Wellsford. This is a very dangerous stretch of road, with many corners and potentially tricky bits to negotiate – particularly for a state highway that carries a reasonably large number of vehicles per day (around 10,500 in 2008 according to NZTA data). While some safety measures have been put in place, such as an 80 kph speed limit, no passing double-yellow lines throughout the whole Dome Valley and rumble strips – clearly these measures have not been enough.

Rodney Mayor Penny Webster is understandably concerned about how dangerous this stretch of road is, but her proposed solution is the hugely expensive and (perhaps even more important in this discussion) hugely lengthy to investigate, design, consent and construct, Puhoi-Wellsford Road – known by many as the “Holiday Highway”. Here’s what she says about the issue:

Rodney Mayor Penny Webster has reiterated her calls for the immediate upgrade of the Puhoi to Wellsford highway, following yet another death on the road and more heavy congestion during the Easter break.

“Rodney District Council has advocating for some time the four laning of this important part of State Highway One to begin immediately to improve the safety of the road,” Mayor Webster says.

“Unfortunately, another life was lost this Easter holidays on a road which is fast becoming one of the busiest and worst traffic black spots in the country.”

Mrs Webster has also lashed out at criticism of the urgent need for the state highway upgrade as petty politics being played out by self-indulgent, Auckland-based local and national politicians.

“It is just arrant nonsense for these critics to dismiss this vitally important and strategically significant part of New Zealand’s state highway as merely a ‘holiday highway’”, she added

“What these people conveniently forget – while taking cheap shots at the many thousands of New Zealanders who access this part of the country during holidays – is that fact that this road is a key economic link between Auckland and the north.”

Mrs Webster says upgrading State Highway One from Puhoi to Wellsford is vital for the economic future of Rodney, Northland and Auckland as a whole.

She says the highway also has an appalling safety record and urgent action is needed.

“I am sick and tired of hearing claims about this only being ‘a holiday road’ – surely the amount of traffic movements on this stretch of highway would indicate to anyone with common sense that it is anything but a holiday road,” she says.

“The community who live in the region knows this, as do the thousands of people who travel this road everyday.”

In one respect I absolutely understand where she’s coming from on this issue. The Warkworth to Wellsford road is very very dangerous and something needs to be done about it, now. However, there are some big questions that need to be asked though about this link between improving the safety of state highway one between Warkworth and Wellsford, and building a whole new motorway – which is what the holiday highway is actually all about. Is four-laning the only safety improvement option though? Is four-laning even the best safety improvement option? And I certainly doubt that four-laning is the safety option that will have benefits that happen the quickest.

Here’s what the government has said about the timing of this project:

Puhoi to Wellsford is approximately 38kms long and will run from the northern end of the Northern Gateway Toll Road near Puhoi to north of Wellsford.

Mr Joyce says at this early stage the first half of the road from Puhoi to Warkworth will be complete within the ten year period but the second half (Warkworth to Wellsford) will be more challenging to finish in that time. However, that remains the Transport Agency’s goal.

So, in short, it seems unlikely that the most dangerous stretch of this road will be upgraded within the next decade. Furthermore, one would imagine that because around a billion and a half dollars is being sunk into a new 38km long motorway, it would be a bit silly to spend any serious money improving the existing route as its lifespan as the main north-south link is likely to be fairly limited. So we’re unlikely to see any major safety upgrades within the next decade.

This shows that instead of actually improving safety outcomes, it would seem as though Joyce’s obsession with building this road as a monument to himself will actually have severely negative safety impacts over the next decade – as little, if anything, is done to improve the safety of the existing route while all effort is put into building a huge motorway that is complete overkill for the problems it is designed to solve. If five people die on this stretch of road each year, then that’s 50 people who will die over the next decade because we’ve put off immediately required safety upgrades while instead focusing on building a hugely expensive, generally unnecessary motorway. That doesn’t seem sensible to me.

What I would be interested in knowing is what safety benefits could be applied to this stretch of state highway 1 if you had $100 million to spend, or $200 million or even $300 million? Could you build concrete median barriers down the middle of the road throughout and along each side? Could you put speed cameras at 500m intervals to make damn sure that nobody was speeding? Could you ease a few of the nastiest and most dangerous corners? Could you lengthen a few existing passing lanes so that people don’t make dangerous passing manoeuvres ? Because most upgrades could occur within the existing designation area, theoretically NZTA could start building them tomorrow. Not in 10 years, not even in 5 years, but now.

How many lives would that save compared to the “let’s build a massively expensive motorway in ten years’ time” option?

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  1. It seems that this has become the new ‘Pacific Highway’ (Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki). This stretch of road is – as you would know – currently the alternative to the future TG.

    It was plagued with accidents because if its windy nature (and I guess distracting views), primarily head-on collisions. It finally got to a breaking point where a trial of median safety wire was placed along a stretch of the road. Surprise, surprise – no (serious/fatal) accidents along that stretch any more. The trial was extended, and now we have little to no serious accidents on that road at all.
    The only drawback being that if there is an accident, the road is now partial to having more of the carriageway blocked, creating larger tailbacks than before.

  2. Hopefully we’ll lose Banks and Williams too…

    I think it’s disgraceful that Mayor Penny (who is a bit of a road nut) isn’t jumping up and down and asking why the $100 million being spent on Puhoi to Wellsford study isn’t going to immeaditely begin construction of Penlink (which has been pushed), here is road that will offer thousands of her residents huge time savings twice a day and they won’t have to wait over a decade to get them…

    I don’t support all that many new roads till we sort out our existing network but that one sells itself…

  3. I agree Jeremy, Penlink is a bit of a no-brainer. I also wonder why she’s not jumping up and down for that $100 million to be spent on immediate safety upgrades to the Dome Valley road.

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