A decision on the replacement route for the closed State Highway 3 through the Manawatu Gorge will not be made until next year.
The NZ Transport Agency had suggested it would make a decision by the middle of this month, but now says more work will be needed to choose between the four options.
The region's mayors have welcomed the delay but the news is a blow to Dannevirke bus operator Derek Rose.
"They're [NZTA] bloody hopeless, but this delay doesn't surprise me," he said. "This is a pretty sad day for us guys. It's getting to the point now as to how we can make our business work. There's a huge cost involved in running over the Saddle Rd, but the NZTA couldn't care less about us.
"It's been a joke and everyone has had a gutsful. Some days I think it's hardly worth carrying on, but the bills keep coming. Now I just want a bit of honesty from NZTA."
The highway through the gorge, a vital link for more than 200,000 people who live in Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa, has been closed since a number of slips in April.
Ross I'Anson, NZTA's regional transport system manager, said good progress has been made on assessing the four short-listed options, but more discussions are needed before it can make a decision on the best option with confidence.
"We are working closely with local councils and other stakeholders to make the right long-term decision," he said. "It's vital we have strong support on the new route as it will represent a very significant long-term investment and it will need to serve the region and the country for decades to come."
I'Anson said the NZTA also wants a solution as early as possible, and the latest delay was not expected to delay the overall project.
"We understand this may be frustrating for communities and road users. We're absolutely committed to finding the best long-term solution that will support economic development and growth for the central and lower North Island through a modern, safe, efficient and resilient state highway network."
Tararua District mayor Tracey Collis said the chosen options would need significant investment, so it had to be done properly.
"It's about making the right, long-term, resilent decision and we are going to hold NZTA to account when it comes to the construction timeframe. We don't want any more delays," she said.
"But I understand the angst and uncertainty and extra anxiety this delay causes people."
Tararua deputy mayor Alan Benbow, a member of the business case group assessing the options, believes the decision delay is welcome news.
"It's a very complex solution in terms of option 4," he said. "That option is the linking into Palmerston North and is a much bigger roading solution for the region."
Benbow said he believes when the NZTA got the weight of opinion from regional leaders last Friday, it had to reconsider its decision.
And neither Benbow nor Collis believe the delay has anything to do with the Labour Government wanting NZTA to come up with a cheaper option.
The four shortlisted options:
• A $300m-$400m upgrade of Saddle Rd to state highway standard.
• A $350m-$400m road north of the Saddle.
• A $350m-$450 new road south of the Saddle.
• A $450m-$550m route south of the Manawatu Gorge, which the region's mayors prefer.
Option 4 would build a second bridge over the Manawatu River, connecting with the regional ring road in the Manawatu.
All options would take between five and seven years.
Gorge closures costly:
• In his report, The Achilles Heel of State Highway 3, Corporate Logistics' Gincarlo Hannan raises questions about the time taken to explore a permanent solution.
• The Manawatu Gorge has been closed for more than 550 days since 2004.
• Corporate Logistics has calculated the daily loss to the region's economy to be $100,000, equating to more than $55 million in the last 13 years.
• One of the main contributors to the unstable rockface along the east-west corridor was road widening and straightening between 1920 and 1940, and 1960 and 1980, Gincarlo Hannan says.
• The 14-month closure of the gorge in 2011 cost $20 million to fix, plus $10m for upgrades and maintenance on alternative routes.