Bay transport leaders have expressed "disappointment" and "frustration" at the Government's decision to pull funding for stage 2 of the Takitimu North Link, Te Puna to Ōmokoroa.
Western Bay of Plenty District councillor Don Thwaites, who has lived in Te Puna for 48 years, says he had heard "a lot of disappointment" in community meetings since the decision was announced last Friday.
He said residents had "thought it was a done deal" the full project would go ahead so they did not make submissions to a major regional transport plan.
"That was why the community failed to submit ... because the Te Puna and Ōmokoroa communities could see relief. Three years ago, there was hundreds and hundreds [of submissions] on the back of the Fix the Road campaign."
On Wednesday the Bay of Plenty Regional Transport Committee - a joint committee of Bay councils - met to sign off the Regional Land Transport Plan, a $3 billion plan for investments in transport infrastructure and services.
At the meeting, Thwaites said he was "displeased" at the funding deferral.
He had been "really looking forward" to some relief from the traffic.
"I've had a lot of messages from contacts in Te Puna [who] are really disappointed with it.]"
Committee chairman Lyall Thurston, a regional councillor, told Thwaites: "We share your anger and frustration."
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said "We express our collective regret," adding that it was unfortunate "priorities can be changed so quickly".
Tauranga commissioner Stephen Selwood asked why the funding had been pulled, and said he was "frustrated that this project has gone down the list of priorities".
Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency regional relationships director David Speirs said a judgment was made by the minister based on the advice he was given and on changes in the Government Policy Statement.
"The rebaselining of how much the upgrade programme was going to cost indicated significant cost increases across the board. The minister was faced with a choice of how much could be afforded."
The agency was working to understand the implications of this decision and the options going forward.
The committee voted to write to Minister of Transport Michael Wood noting the importance of the Ōmokoroa intersection and Takitimu North Link stage 2, and requesting consideration of solutions and National Land Transport Programme funding as soon as possible.
The letter would also ask the agency to consider the potential for a variation to the National Land Transport Programme.
Wood told NZME on Thursday the ministry was increasing its investment into stage 1 of the Takitimu North Link.
Construction would start at the end of the year to support the region's economic recovery and improve safety.
He said cost rises would have added $6.8 billion to the original $6b New Zealand Upgrade Programme, which the link was funded from.
"Instead we've taken a balanced approach with a mix of additional investment and a handful of projects being rescoped to help keep a lid on debt.
"We're also proceeding with route protection for the next stage, which will be built in the future.
"We know safety is a major concern on SH2 and that's why we're continuing to build safety improvements between Waihi and Ōmokoroa to help save lives."
Stage one of the expressway project - a new expressway from Tauranga to Te Puna - has funding of $655 million, up from the $478m announced in 2020.
Stage 2, a 7km extension to Ōmokoroa on SH2, would receive route protection but nothing else in the next three years. Anything beyond that had to go through the National Land Transport Programme.
Originally, the two stages were expected to be completed by 2027 and cost a total of $933m. Stage 2 would cost $455m of this.