Over the recent Easter holidays, traffic congestion in the Horowhenua district reached diabolical levels.

The continually increasing delays are a constant reminder that there is an invisible apparition hovering over the region promising to provide a solution.

The construction of the Ōtaki to North of Levin expressway (O2NL) is in the pipeline, but for many living in the area, questions about when it will materialise are starting to feel as though they should be reworded with 'if'.

Congestion and road safety are major concerns for Horowhenua. The existing highway is becoming busier and slower. Accidents have happened. People say they have had enough.

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Residents attending a meeting about the O2NL expressway.
Residents attending a meeting about the O2NL expressway.

And, for those with properties within the area the road is likely to go through, there is a whole different level of angst.

No matter if they are for the road's construction or against it, a large group of residents and business owners are living in limbo, unsure if their homes and businesses will be bulldozed, adjoined by a major road or if they won't be affected.

While a preferred corridor was finally announced in December last year, and two yellow lines were set through the district map, the final route designation has not yet been revealed, or even decided on.

The announcement was a relief for those living in other proposed corridors but a major disappointment for many, who had hoped it might provide certainty for those living in the road's path. They had known they could be in the final 300m-wide corridor, but hoped the 60 to 100m needed for the road may have missed them. Or if they were in the way, while they may not have wanted to move, they could now accept the inevitable, selling to the Government and moving on.

Except they can't.

The final corridor - a combination of northern section N4 and southern section S6 - meant over 200 properties or blocks of land were affected by the road.

And at this point, things seemed to grind to a halt.

Consultation documents for the O2NL expressway project. Photo / NZTA
Consultation documents for the O2NL expressway project. Photo / NZTA

The corridor's finality had an instant and negative effect on property market values and cast serious uncertainty over people's lives, and with the project undergoing re-evaluation under a new Government Policy Statement on land transport, it had also shifted focus.

More short and medium-term safety improvements were planned for existing roads in Horowhenua, and the expressway design reduced from four lanes to two, with the final route having to accommodate the possible extra lanes in future.

While the safety improvements at the start of the year seem to have made a big difference - statistics show there were no fatalities and just one serious injury crash on the highway between Ōtaki and Foxton in the year to May, compared with two deaths and nine serious injuries in the same time period last year - planning for a new road takes more time and more consultation.

For people living in the corridor, NZTA will not buy their properties at the moment, because the final route has not been identified.

The project is still categorised as having the status of "investigation" and there seems to be doubt as to when the final route will be identified.

Last year's update promised the final route would be "investigated and developed" with accommodation made for "a number of factors". Subject to funding approval, it said, NZTA intended to progress this work between December last year and mid 2020.

Resource Management Act approvals would be needed and the agency would work towards having a designation in place within approximately two to three years, said NZTA Director of Regional Relationships Emma Speight.

While a new update is scheduled for this month, local MP Nathan Guy, who is outspoken about speeding up the O2NL project, has said route designation may take longer, which would still leave residents in limbo.

He was sceptical of the scheduled announcement, saying he thought the agency would cite funding issues.

"They need to find the money to go on and compensate those who want to get on with their lives," he said.

Guy said safety was also a major reason for fast-tracking the road, and that he believed money had been diverted away from the project in favour of Auckland.

"Billions of state highway funding has been raided," he said. "What the community wants to hear is will NZTA speed up property purchases?"

Ōtaki MP Nathan Guy.
Ōtaki MP Nathan Guy.

Speight confirmed the agency would not actively purchase properties until further down the track.

"That will happen closer to the start of the project construction, once our Resource Management Act approvals are complete," she said.

In February, Horowhenua District Council said NZTA had said the agency would be working towards finishing a business case for the project by December 2019 that would include "refinement of the final alignment" within the corridor, confirmation of interchange locations and required staging if any.

A decision would then be made towards the end of this year on the consent process, which would likely be via Notice of Requirement. The council understood this would then be likely to begin in mid 2020 with a 12-month timeframe.

For those in the corridor, NZTA's business case process requires considerable detailed and technical investigations to confirm project timings and costs, according to the council.

This means NZTA is still keeping its options open and the council said it believed this meant no active property acquisitions over the next 18 to 24 months.

There is one way out for residents in the corridor though - NZTA's Advance Purchase policy.

According to the policy, if a property owner can "demonstrate a genuine case of serious hardship" and that they have actively tried to sell their property for at least three months, an application for a speedier purchase can be considered by the agency.

The policy states that the main grounds are medical, such as a serious illness requiring a sale to release funds for treatment, the need for alternative care or a change of location in order to be closer to family support or deal with an estate.

There are strict definitions around the policy and evidence from a doctor or a statutory declaration is required.

Speight said the agency had received 24 advance purchase applications for the O2NL project to date, with 14 having been approved so far.

This may be a possibility for some, but there are many other residents without these grounds who are feeling the strain emotionally and mentally.

NZTA has attempted to reassure them the project will actually happen.

"The re-evaluation of the Ōtaki to North of Levin project last year recognised that it aligned with Government priorities, following re-focusing of the project to prioritise safety, access to social and economic opportunities, transport choice and resilience," Speight said.

"We recognise the uncertainty that the project has caused for property owners as potential options for the new road have been developed and considered."

And while this recognition may be acknowledgement from NZTA, it is likely to be cold comfort for some, waiting while having their lives affected by the uncertain presence of something they can't see, yet feel constantly.