The $7.5 million spent on improving State Highway 10 through Bulls Gorge would have been better used to flood-proof Far North roads which regularly disappear under water, Mayor Wayne Brown says.
The mayor spoke during the official opening of the 1.7km Bulls Gorge realignment, south of Kerikeri, last Thursday. Traffic has been using the wider, straighter route since this time last year but the ribbon-cutting was delayed until finishing touches were complete. Work on the mammoth project started in late 2010.
The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) says the improved highway will boost logging, orchard and tourism industries by reducing sharp corners and gradients on a key connection between Auckland and the Far North. It would also reduce injuries in what had been a high-crash area.
State highways manager for Auckland and Northland, Tommy Parker, said safety features included wire barriers and a 10-metre wide "clear zone" on either side of the road. Vehicles which lost control could stop in the clear zone instead of dropping into the gorge.
One of the project's successes was the way NZTA had worked with the Department of Conservation (DoC), councils and contractors to protect wildlife in the adjacent Puketona Scenic Reserve. Eleven kiwi had been tagged and monitored to ensure they didn't wander into the construction site, and a culvert was built to allow safe passage for eels and freshwater crayfish.
More than 45,000 native trees had been planted, Mr Parker said.
Mr Brown added his praise for the partnership between DoC, local iwi Ngati Rehia and the NZTA. The way traffic was handled during the busy Rugby World Cup was also laudable, he said.
However, he said he believed $7.5 million could have been better spent elsewhere on the Far North's state highways. Safety was important but so was "route resilience" in a district regularly cut off by flooding at Kaeo and Moerewa.
"Five to ten times a year exports can't go south, food can't come north, and ambulances can't go either way," he said.
It was another example of how decisions made in Whangarei, in this case by the Regional Land Transport Committee, were not always in the Far North's interests.
Mr Brown also queried why the passing lane did not go all the way up the hill.
Traffic was still getting stuck behind trucks, he said. Mr Parker said the ability to put in passing lanes was limited by a turnoff at the top of the gorge. Making the highway two lanes all the way up would be costly and require a bigger cut into the hill.
The official opening was marked with speeches, the unveiling of a proposed sculpture, ribbon cutting and planting of a kowhai tree.
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