Warkworth resident Bob Scott writes on the planned motorway north of Auckland - the 'Holiday Highway'
A headline like "80 New Zealanders Sentenced to Death" would bring an outraged reaction if resulting from the actions of a Third World despot.
But the reality is, that's not the case. Rather it's what could happen if Transport Minister Steven Joyce gets his way with the ridiculous and hugely expensive scheme to classify the Puhoi to Wellsford motorway extension as a "Road of National Significance". And to press on with its construction with a completion date of 2032.
In the nine years from 2000 to 2009 there were a total of 41 fatalities on this stretch of road, mainly centred on two blackspots, Schedewys Hill north of Puhoi and the Dome Valley between Warkworth and Wellsford.
The crash rates at these locations far exceed the national average and most of them involved head-on collisions.
If accidents continue to occur at the same rate, and there's no reason to believe they won't, then in the next 21 years there will be a further 95 deaths and most of these could be avoided.
The stated aim of this road when completed is to improve journey time reliability between Auckland and Northland, to reduce congestion during peak periods and to provide a safer, more reliable and efficient road transport link to improve the mobility of people and freight.
Furthermore, it is claimed the biggest regional growth benefit will be improved economic development opportunities that better access will bring, particularly to Warkworth and Wellsford, as well as more broadly throughout the Northland region.
If we look at whether this proposed road will actually achieve this, we find the case is far from proven.
The NZ Transport Agency document that champions the cause for this project claims there will be savings in journey times of eight minutes from Puhoi to Warkworth and seven minutes from Warkworth to Wellsford, a saving of 15 minutes on the whole journey.
This is quite clearly ridiculous as the present journey (according to the AA) of 35km takes just 31 minutes at an average speed of 67km/h. To achieve a journey time of 16 minutes over the proposed 38km motorway, the average speed would need to be 142km/h - not only illegal, but highly dangerous and unlikely to do very much for safety.
The document also claims that travel time savings will be greater during the 10 major public holiday weekends, which is undoubtedly true, but fails to take into account that on these holiday weekends, commercial traffic is almost non-existent.
In other words, those who are supposed to be the chief recipients of the benefit won't be there to enjoy it.
It's very difficult to understand how this can bring improved economic development opportunities to the Northland region particularly when the proposed motorway terminates at Wellsford, halfway between Auckland and Whangarei.
No wonder the project has been dubbed the "Holiday Highway".
Apart from all of this, the economic case for building this road does not add up at all. The projected cost of all this at 2009 prices is between $1.7 billion and $2.04 billion and the standard which measures the direct transport benefits of the project shows a figure of 0.8.
In other words, for every dollar invested there is a return of just 80c. Many transport experts believe that the figure is, at best, optimistic and is more likely to be 0.4.
So what's the answer? Well, we all know that road usage, with the exception of heavy goods vehicles, is decreasing.
The Transport Agency's statistics show vehicle movements on this stretch of road have remained pretty much static or decreased for the past five years. And with fuel at well over $2 a litre and rising, this is likely to remain the case.
There is a very strong case for retention and upgrading of the northern rail line to take freight off the roads and put it back on the rails. The introduction of super-fast broadband in Northland would also cut down the number of required journeys by commuters and couriers.
There have been a number of studies by NZTA and other groups into a safety upgrade of this lethal stretch of road over the past years.
But the Government seems to want to ignore these, and that car usage is on the decline, in favour of a grandiose scheme to create a legacy and a monument to a bygone age.
Among the schemes was one that was put forward by the Campaign for Better Transport. Known as "Operation Lifesaver", it suggested urgent safety upgrades to the existing State Highway 1 at the known accident blackspots and bypasses for Warkworth and Wellsford to ease the congestion at these points.
The benefits of this scheme are many, including an estimated cost of between $160 million and $320 million. A fraction of what the Government is proposing to spend.
The chief benefit, however, is the work to improve the road could be started right now.
If the safety improvements were completed within the next three years, then saving lives would begin in 2014.
That alone could save at least 80 lives between now and 2032 that would otherwise be needlessly lost.
How can anyone possibly justify jeopardising so many lives on a piece of political ideology?