Project cost estimations for Ō2NL - the Ōtaki to North of Levin expressway - have already ballooned from $817 million to $1.5 billion, a cost increase which the Government has granted, according to letters by Transport Minister Michael Wood, which were among a list of documents released under the Official Information Act at the request of Horowhenua district councillor Sam Jennings.
"From this information it is clear Ō2NL was most certainly on the chopping block and it appears it was only senior ministerial decisions that saved it at the 11th hour. The bureaucrats in Wellington wanted to kill or stall the project," Jennings said.
"The documents confirm that around 15 April NZTA was recommending that the project only continue to a 'route protection' and 50 per cent property purchase state (with a budget of $180m)."
Increases in cost over numerous projects had prompted the Ministry of Transport to recommend a resounding "do not deliver" recommendation for the Horowhenua Expressway.
In a report written on May 29 and addressed to Ministers Michael Wood and Grant Robertson, the draft report gives further information on emissions considerations and route protection directed to future-proof routes originally in the [New Zealand Upgrade] programme as desired by Government policy.
In the route protection section there is no mention of Ō2NL, but in the following update on programme options Ō2NL is among those projects mentioned that are expected to cost far more than once anticipated.
The Horowhenua Expressway, budgeted at $817m is now more likely to cost between $1.2b and $1.5b.
On his letters to Michael McCartney, chair of Accelerate 25, and Horowhenua district councillor Victoria Kaye-Simmons, who advocated strongly in favour of Ō2NL to go ahead in early May, Wood scribbled a handwritten note at the bottom stating the additional $700m had been allocated to Ō2NL.
In his letter he gives the assurance that "Accelerate 25 and local government representatives will be kept well informed of any decisions that impact the Ō2Nlproject."
However, in a similar report issued a month earlier the Ministry of Transport recommendation is: Do Not Deliver, no route protection or property purchase while the same statistics state that the Waka Kotahi was of the opinion: does not need to proceed, taken to DBC, estimated to cost $180m.
In an email from June 2, addressed to local MPs Minister Wood's press secretary refers to the speculation about the future of Ō2NL.
He said the baseline process for infrastructure projects, like Ō2NL, was announced pre-Covid.
"A baselining exercise has been done to provide more certainty around the scope, cost and schedule of the [NZ Upgrade] Programme."
The email confirms Robertson would announce that Ō2NL would go ahead that morning at a meeting in Kāpiti.
"An extra $1.9b is being invested."
The email also said, "Ōtaki to North of Levin is needed to improve safety, resilience and support our economic recovery.
"It's one of the most dangerous sections of road to drive in New Zealand - in the five years to 2017, there were 49 deaths and serious injuries along the route.
"With no current alternative route when SH1 is closed by crashes or weather-related events, the new highway will provide a detour route and build resilience into the state highway network.
"The new highway will ensure people and freight are able to safely and easily move between the two regions and the rest of the North Island – helping to support the regions' businesses and economic recovery."
Jennings had asked for all correspondence on the baselining, as well as any correspondence about Ō2NL from Ōtaki MP Terisa Ngobi, Horowhenua District Council, Horowhenua Mayor Bernie Wanden and those between staff of various ministries regarding Ō2NL and the minister's office.