The safety problem of one-lane bridges on Northland's state highways has become so suddenly urgent the National government has announced it will spend up to $69 million on double-laned replacements.
However, the move has been branded a byelection bribe and pork barrel politics by opponents. Yesterday's announcement has received much haw-hawing from road watchers and political pundits for its timing - only days before the vote in the Northland Parliamentary byelection on March 28.
National Party Northland candidate Mark Osborne was given the task of announcing the Government's brand new commitment to replacing 10 bridges on the Twin Coast Highway loop that joins several highways, despite the fact he's not a member of the Government.
One of the bridges crosses the Kaeo River on State Highway 10 and has been a long-time safety issue because of its tendency to flood, and it turns sharply at a stop sign controlled intersection.
Some locals were making cynical comments about the announcement's timing but were relieved the end was in sight for the problem single-lane bridge. While most accidents on the bridge were minor, it was often the scene of traffic snags and altercations between drivers.
"There are always stand-offs there. I think it should have been replaced 10 years ago, not only now because they want our vote," said Kaeo bus driver Steve Rush.
Bakery manager Karen Dangen said she had seen crashes, trucks hit the barriers and even get stuck, and lines of traffic backed up at the bridge. Ms Dangen said she hoped the work would include giving the bridge a sweeping approach and improving access to the road to Whangaroa.
Another local, who wanted to be known only as Anne, said the bridge was a nuisance but dust from unsealed roads and the poor condition of roads were also problems on Northland roads. Already dubbed the 10 Bridges Programme, it will cost between $32 million and $69 million over six years to replace the bridges at Taipa, Kaeo, Rangiahua, Tirohanga, Taheke, Waipoua Forest, two at Waimamaku and two at Matakohe. None of the bridges are in the Whangarei electorate.
Mr Osborne said that since becoming the Northland candidate in recent weeks, he had campaigned to replace the old single-lane bridges.
"I am thrilled the National leadership team have endorsed the approach I am advocating," he said.
Several critics of rapid elevation of the Northland bridges to major importance before the byelection, including Labour Leader Andrew Little, have called it "pork barrelling", a term for profile-raising by promising money for localised projects.
Another Northland candidate, Joe Carr, from Focus NZ, and also a Northland Regional Councillor on the Regional Land Transport Committee, said the promise of safer bridges was "a sweetener" - but he nevertheless supported replacing dangerous, flood-prone bridges in Northland.
Mr Carr said the Matakohe bridges had been the next project in line in 2010 but the job was canned because of National's desire to fund the Roads of National Significance projects. The 10 Bridges Programme will be funded from National Land Transport Fund.
NZ First Leader and Northland byelection candidate Winston Peters said the announcement was a cynical byelection bribe.
Speaking in Whangarei's Cameron St Mall yesterday, Mr Peters said the voters of Northland would see through the bribe and National was worried about the impact his campaign has had for the byelection.
"Surprise, surprise this morning National announced it will fix 10 bridges in Northland. All of a sudden something is being promised," he said.
Mr Peters topped a 3news/Reid Research poll last week that gave him 35 per cent support in the race.
Yesterday Mr Peters took the chance to make his own promises, including upgrading the Auckland to Northland railway line.