Northland's roads are crumbling. Reporter Jenny Ling and AA Northland District Council chairwoman Tracey Rissetto hit the road to highlight just how bad they have become.
The road trip began in the Far North on a dismal rainy morning.
It was sparked following the Automobile Association's recent call for critical funding for repair and maintenance work to Northland's roads.
So, AA Northland District Council chairwoman Tracey Rissetto and I hopped in her car and drove around to document the damage and see just how bad they have become.
Though we covered a fraction of the region's vast roading network on March 29, we gathered plenty of evidence.
It confirmed what most Northlanders already know – that our roads are crumbling.
Rissetto calls them "unsafe".
"Over the years constant underfunding has impacted on road safety," she said.
"If you go to the dentist for an annual check-up, they can find and repair things when they're small, otherwise you wait and the problems get massive.
"For the last six to eight years successive governments have been underfunding roading so they're deteriorating.
"It's created the perfect storm, more traffic and less money spent on our roads."
The 80km trip began in Kawakawa and went north to Pakaraka, further north to Kerikeri, west along Wiroa and Waiare roads to Ōkaihau and along Te Pua Rd near Lake Omapere.
Then we travelled back through Ōhaeawai, Pakaraka and Moerewa, finishing in Kawakawa.
The journey covered parts of SH1, 10, 15 and 12, along with local roads.
The AA reckons the region's 986km of state highway and 6000km of local roads are dire.
Rissetto stops short of calling them a joke.
But she calls Kawakawa's notorious Three Bridges "Noddy bridges" because they're so old, and driving over their narrow little humps is like being in a Noddy car.
They're "not fit for purpose", she said, just as logging trucks travelling the opposite direction on each bridge squeezed past us.
The trucks kept coming as we drove through Moerewa, where 80 per cent of the state highway going north and south was a continuous stretch of bare chip seal.
These sprawling bald areas, along with patched, slumping, slippery surfaces, which we spotted throughout our journey, are dangerous, Rissetto said.
Shoddy road maintenance affects a vehicle's grip with the road, its risk of skidding and the driver losing control.
They are not all so bad; improvements have been done to the network.
Rissetto acknowledges the Akerama improvement project, which covered a section of SH1 near Hūkerenui, and there's a "beautiful stretch of road" on SH10 near Pakaraka.
"Apart from that they've all been patched up," she said.
"The challenge is it's all of Northland, there's not just one particular part that's really bad.
It's hard to find places where it's not bad.
"If you look at Moerewa, they're indescribable. How much worse can they get?"
IT'S THIS lack of maintenance that's impacting on safety and contributing to accidents and deaths.
Northland has the highest rate of road deaths in New Zealand per head of population, the AA says.
Fatalities in Northland per 100,000 population in 2020 when 28 people died was 14.4, while the national average was 6.3.
Though there are various factors involved in the crashes, research has shown the link between road maintenance and safety.
It's why the AA's campaign to revitalise road maintenance across the country, started in Northland.
Almost an extra $1 billion is needed over the next three years just to clear essential maintenance work on the nation's roads, the organisation says.
Of this, at least $60-70m is needed in Northland.
As we drove along long stretches of crumbling road near Pakaraka, followed by more in Oromahoe and along Wiroa Rd, Rissetto explained the numerous "pinch points" on Northland roads.
These are the places which are particularly unsafe for motorists and unsuitable for heavy traffic.
The southern side of the Brynderwyn Hills are one: "You know it's difficult to drive. That part of the road is unkind".
Another is the broken 20km of SH1 near Mangamuka Gorge, closed since torrential rain caused massive slips last July, which "shows poor resilience of the state highway network".
The drive between Whangārei and Kawakawa is "appalling", she said.
There are numerous bad patches around Towai, Waiomio and the Maromaku turnoff, and patched and slumping surfaces south of Hūkerenui.
Northland roads are tiring to drive, the level of concentration needed to navigate poor roads adding to driver fatigue.
THE REASON for the roads being so bad are two-fold, Rissetto said. Firstly, there's been a big increase in traffic movements.
State highway use has increased by 31 pe rcent in the last decade and heavy vehicle traffic - which does more damage to the road - has increased 21 per cent.
Local road use has increased 21 per cent.
This is due, in part, to the region's key industries like forestry, horticulture and agriculture and farming which are all heavy traffic users.
Then there's the main problem - the lack of government funding over many years.
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency agrees there are growing demands on the roading network, and an increase of heavy vehicles on the roads.
It concedes there is "limited funding".
Waka Kotahi's Northland system manager Jacqui Hori-Hoult said in the current 2018-2021 period, $38 million was invested to repair and resurface 574 lane km of Northland state highways.
This is part of a much larger three-year investment of $109m to maintain Northland's state highways and includes other important maintenance work like upgrading guard rails, repainting markings and trimming trees.
"We are working hard to optimise our road maintenance and renewal work at a time when there is a finite amount of funding available and growing demands on the roading network," Hori-Hoult said.
"Having a finite budget means we need to continuously prioritise and make trade-offs to manage a state highway network which has grown significantly, and the number of vehicles and heavy vehicles has increased.
"To optimise the limited funding, we have also installed more preventive measures such as building more retaining walls around slip sites to minimise their impact and build resilience.
"We have also moved to more high strength roading surfaces."
Rissetto said the current funding formula doesn't allow for Northland's unique geology, which includes clay soil. It's also more expensive to transport materials, she said.
"We are more expensive to build up here, but we get the same funding per kilometre as what they do in the Waikato or central plateau."
It's time to focus on the safety of the roads. Motorists pay billions in fuel tax and road user charges each year.
Yet the reality is fuel tax and road user charges are spread across all transport projects including public transport, walking and cycling projects, as well as roads.
Numerous advertisement campaigns highlight the dangers of speeding, not wearing seatbelts, drinking and driving and using cellphones while driving.
"They need to continue them, but there's been no conversations about what we drive on and the impact that has on how safe we are," Rissetto said.
Reducing speed limits, as the Far North District Council did to 60 roads in the district in January in a bid to improve road safety, was a positive step, she said.
"But you have to have a change in the environment so drivers understand the speed has changed.
"If you don't do anything about the roads, you're putting all the onus on the driver. And drivers make mistakes.
"Around Christmas when there's lots of visitors and they're not used to driving on our roads, that also becomes problematic."
Transport Minister Michael Wood acknowledged Northland "needs more sustained investment" in its roads, and said he planned to visit the region in May.
"I recognise Northland, like many of our regions, needs more sustained investment to help it flourish.
"We made a good start last term with initiatives like the Provincial Growth Fund, but there is more to do."
After spotting uneven surfaces at the intersection of SH1 and SH15 between Ōkaihau and Ōhaeawai, Rissetto summed up the trip and delivers her verdict.
"We met quite a bit of heavy transport and the heavy vehicle transport movements are on the increase which reflects the change in the economy up here.
"What we drove was an example of what the roads are like in Northland. Generally, the roads are not safe to drive on.
"It's just not acceptable and something needs to be done."
The AA has written to Northland MPs highlighting the state of the region's roads and calling for an increase in funding for road maintenance. Here's what they had to say.
Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis
Our Government recognises that the north has been neglected over many years in a number of areas, so we have invested billions of dollars in the region.
We know that road maintenance has been one of those areas where, under previous governments, there has been serious under-investment.
There's always more to do, but we've been getting on with the job, including through the repair and renewal of over 500km of state highways in Te Tai Tokerau.
Making sure our roads are up to scratch is an issue we take seriously and I know the transport minister is planning to visit our region in May.
Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime
Northland's record for accidents, particularly fatal accidents is concerning and the rates we are seeing are certainly not acceptable to me.
Work needs to be done and work is currently being done. NZTA is continuing to identify and improve high risk safety areas including three speed management reviews.
In a large region like Northland we have many different types of roads with differing rates of need. I have always said the roading in Northland is an issue.
Our roads have been neglected for many years, both state highways and local roads.
I continue to raise issues and I have been pleased with the response, but there is more to do. I would like to see more consistency across the district.
I want to ensure we are investing in making our roads safer and also more education about wearing seatbelts.
There are certainly patches along SH1 through Moerewa where it is very rough.
It wasn't long ago this road was resealed.
I am not sure what the reason for that is. It is something NZTA should be looking at.
National deputy leader Shane Reti
I've been a strong supporter and lobbyist of increased maintenance for a long time.
The further north you go from Whangārei the worse it gets.
North Hokianga around Broadwood is the worst road in Northland, and that's a sealed road, we're not even talking about unsealed rural roads.
Northland roads are poor; they've been poor for a while.
I've seen no significant roading projects announced by the current Government and have no faith of seeing any progress for Northland.
As National's deputy leader, I travel frequently all over country and can compare roads in the South Island, and all around the North Island.
We're a poor comparison for the rest of the roads in New Zealand.
The Government has been more focused on economic drivers, like the "golden triangle" between Auckland, Tauranga and Hamilton, and that's fundamentally why we've received less funding than we should have.
You've got the Waikato expressway and the Tauranga expressway... but that's ignored some of the economic contributions Northland makes and our needs up here.
That triangles need to stretch further north.
Whangārei MP Emily Henderson
Northland's roads are definitely a problem, and our road accident record is of huge concern to me, both as the local MP and as someone who drives these roads.
However, I'm optimistic as this Government is very much focused on traffic safety in its transport plan and we're making considerable investments to make driving safer for Northlanders.
Though there is definitely a lot of room for improvement, they are improving.
Just looking at what has already been achieved, we know these measures are going to save lives.
For example, the 10km between Toetoe Rd and Springfield Rd gets about 20,000 vehicles a day.
In mid 2018, Waka Kotahi installed centreline bollards, reflectors and no-passing lanes, and in the next three-and-a-half years that's meant we've had one fatality and five serious injuries compared to nine deaths in crashes and 25 serious injuries on the same stretch of road in the previous five years.
I'm also really pleased that work is already well under way on Whangārei's Loop Rd roundabout, and Portland Rd intersection, which are high-risk areas.
There is always more to be done, particularly when we're having to undo the years of neglect from the previous Government, but we are committed to making our roads safer.
Northland mayors rate their roads
Far North mayor John Carter
5 out of 10
"Because of poor foundations and a lack of money, they're challenging; the roading standards compared to other areas, are pretty low. When you drive the roads south of Auckland, they're beautiful, and you come back here to our state highways and they're all over the place."
Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai
7.5 out of 10
"Our annual customer survey showed that people are fairly satisfied with the safety of roads in the district, the quality of sealed roads and management of peak traffic flows, but are less happy with the maintenance of unsealed roads."
Kaipara mayor Jason Smith
5 out of 10
"There's great progress been made recently to improve Kaipara's roads from a very low level. The mightily talented drivers on Kaipara's 1600km of roads are patient, steady and know they need to take it easy to stay safe on these unforgiving roads."