The speed limit for two-thirds of the highway from Napier to Taupō will be cut from 100km/h to 80km/h from February 18 next year.
The change was announced on Friday by national highways management agency Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, which carried out public consultation after proposing the move in April this year.
But it hasn't pleased Hastings Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst, whose SH5 district boundary is near Tarawera and about 75km northwest of Napier.
Hazlehurst has accused the NZTA of "ignoring the council views and the 2700 submissions from other groups and members of the public".
She sees cutting the speed limits for close to 90km of the road, rather than announcing a major investment to upgrade the highway, as a "bandaid".
"We made our view very clear when we were informed by Waka Kotahi of the decision on Thursday," she said. "It's very disappointing, just not good enough."
The speed will be lowered between Esk Valley (110m west of Waipunga Rd) to Rangitaiki (1.14km southeast of Matea Rd) – almost 90km of the SH2 and SH5 trip's 141km journey from Napier to Taupō.
NZTA concedes the "critical north link for Hawke's Bay" – which includes the almost 60-years-old Mohaka Bridge near Te Haroto – is in need of major work, despite numerous major deviations over the years which have left aerial views of parts of the highway looking like a Snakes and Ladders board.
But director of regional relationships Linda Stewart said: "In the meantime, however, the most effective tool we have at our disposal now to dramatically improve safety for everyone who uses this road is to replace the unsafe speed limit of 100km/h with a much safer speed limit of 80km/h.
"That won't be popular with everyone, but it's the right thing to do and our priority is that everyone gets to their destination safely."
There have been at least 25 fatalities in crashes on the highway in the past 12 years. The Rangitaiki-Esk Valley stretch has claimed all but one of the nine lives lost in the worst period, in 2019-2020, with increasing criticism of road surfaces, including potholes, rutting and deteriorating seal.
"Safe speeds save lives," Stewart said.
"When speeds are safe for the road, simple mistakes are less likely to end in tragedy. That's why we're making the speed limit safer for everyone who uses this road.
"We have listened to the feedback and we understand the need and desire to also make infrastructure changes that will complement the speed limit change.
"As such, we are undertaking feasibility work on safety improvements for the entire section, that will consist of shoulder widening, wide centrelines, side barriers and some intersections improvements."
With detailed design work still to be completed, the NZTA hopes to begin implementing the improvements from late next year.
The NZTA is also seeking funding for a business case exploring improvements in addition to safety, such as improving the resilience of the route to make it better able to withstand severe weather events, and Stewart says work will take place in stages between 2021 and 2027 if finance is approved.
"Every death and every serious injury on our roads has a devastating impact on a large number of people – whanau, friends, colleagues and neighbours, as well as our first responders.
"It is time we stopped accepting that a certain amount of death and serious injury is just the price we all pay for moving around," she said.
"We need to move past the whole idea of a 'road toll' paid in human lives.
"We have clear evidence to show that the current speed limit is not safe for this road, even for the best drivers. The road traverses a constrained and challenging environment and is hilly with sweeping bends and no physical separation of traffic travelling in opposite directions.
"It's not safe or appropriate for it to have the same speed limit as Auckland's Southern Motorway or the Hawke's Bay Expressway. Speed limits should reflect the type of road and their environment.
"SH5 is a critical north link for Hawke's Bay, and will continue to be for years to come, so we know that it's important to plan for its future long-term," Stewart said.
Along with introducing safer speeds on SH5 and SH51 (formerly the SH2 beachfront route south of Napier to Clive and Hastings) about $14 million will be invested into maintenance and safety projects around the Hawke's Bay region, including road resealing and replacements at multiple locations on SH5.