Proponents of the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” have regularly tried to portray the project as being of critical importance to the future prosperity of Northland. I have even heard that before the last election at a “Backbenchers” special TV show in Auckland, Nikki Kaye even went so far as suggesting that the road would be a critical way of solving child poverty in Auckland. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a motorway project.
We’ve always been sceptical about these claims for quite a few reasons:
- The project is not even in Northland, it’s in Auckland
- The project only saves a few minutes of time – despite what Gerry has claimed
- Spending the same amount of money on good transport or economic development initiatives within Northland would almost certainly have a bigger impact
- NZTA’s own analysis of the project from before it was plucked out of the air by the government suggests that the benefits will be minor:
In recent times the argument that the project will benefit Northland has become even more stretched – because it seems as though the Warkworth-Wellsford section is encountering huge problems with geotechnical stability. This is what was stated in a local paper recently in relation to this section:
Meanwhile, investigation of the Warkworth to Wellsford leg has been postponed indefinitely, due to tests that have shown land in the area is so unstable, it would be uneconomic to build a motorway on top of it. It is the poorest possible soil seen in New Zealand.
While the project’s northern half (the closest half to Northland and the section with the most significant existing safety problems) sounds like it’s being chopped forever, it appears as though other elements are being added to the project to enable holiday makers to get to their beach houses quicker. This from the same article as the earlier quote:
However, they have confirmed the motorway would almost certainly join up with a new link road to Matakana, via a large roundabout, which is highly likely to push development to the north of Warkworth, and towards the coast. It is understood Auckland Council planners are already redrawing the rural urban boundary proposed for Warkworth, to reflect the same changes.
It seems that perhaps Northlanders are waking up to the fact that the project which was supposed to have a transformational effect on their economy is slowly but surely evolving into what its critics have called it all along – little more than a “holiday highway”. Here’s a recent article from the Rodney Times:
The Far North District Council says the money could be put to better use on Northland’s roads.
In July the council accepted and agreed to promote a report by traffic engineer Dean Scanlen which calls the motorway “an expensive gift you don’t want”.
Mr Scanlen suggests the benefits of bypasses at Warkworth and Kawakawa, and a tunnel at the Brynderwyn Hills would far outweigh the benefits of a four-lane road between Puhoi and Wellsford as planned.
New political party Focus New Zealand also believes the money could be better spent on Northland roads.
President and Okaihau farmer Ken Rintoul says Northland has bigger transport problems such as the 12 single-lane state highway bridges and poor route security which cuts Northland off in extreme weather.
Mr Rintoul says the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway will create a dangerous bottleneck at Dome Valley which will not be bypassed for a further 10 years.
We have long said that the focus should be on bypassing the towns along the route and then spending money to improve safety by straightening out curves and adding improved passing facilities. All of which could be done sooner and each bit as individual projects. Further the benefits could be felt as soon as each small section is finished rather than having to wait for the completely offline motorway to be completed. I do think a tunnel under the Brynderwnyn’s sounds a bit fanciful and very costly though.
Some still support the project, but seemingly only on the basis that it’s extended much further north in the future:
But Northland Regional Transport Committee chairman John Bain says the road will make a huge difference, improving access to Northland’s main market.
More than 30 per cent of everything Northland produces travels south on the road to Auckland and beyond, he says.
“It used to take three hours to get to Auckland, now it takes two hours. The next step makes it even quicker and opens up the North for all the benefits.”
Mr Bain says it will make the trip easier not only for freight but tourists too.
Mr Bain says the motorway will eventually reach Wellsford, then Whangarei and further north. He wants the Whangarei District Council to consider designating a corridor for a future bypass of the Brynderwyn Hills. Designating the land now means the land corridor will not be too exorbitant to buy and gives everyone certainty.
Given the problems faced by the Warkworth-Wellsford section alone, it seems like it would be a very very long time before extending the motorway north of Wellsford is even considered. And sure I can see how going from three hours to two hours between Whangarei and Auckland could have had a major effect, but this proposed road really only cuts about 10 minutes off travel times at most. That’s hardly earth-shattering and with the exceptions of the Brynderwyn’s there isn’t much to really hold vehicles up for the rest of the route.
I wonder whether it’s only a matter of time until the Warkworth-Wellsford section is quietly dropped from being part of the road of national significance – much like Otaki to Levin was. That section appears to be the only of the RoNS not to have at least an indicative completion date as per the table below which I received as part of my OIA request from the Ministry of Transport. The paper it came from was dated Feb 2013.