Mt Messenger to Awakino Tunnel SH3 upgrade gains momentum
Transport Minister Simon Bridges is confident cultural and conservation issues will be overcome in time for a spring decision on the preferred roading option for an upgrade at Mt Messenger.
Iwi are concerned the proposal could see State Highway 3 diverted through an area where endangered kokako are to be released, as well as through significant cultural wahi tapu sites.
Bridges said he was confident discussions between the New Zealand Transport Agency and iwi on the preferred option would result in a favourable solution for both sides for work to begin by late 2017.
On Wednesday at Mokau, Bridges officially launched the start of the $135 million project, which included a $20m-$25m safety upgrade of the highway between Mt Messenger and the Awakino road tunnel.
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Three options have been put forward by the New Zealand Transport Agency as to what will be the designated route for the state highway between Mt Messenger and the Awakino tunnel.
The options include improving safety on the existing road and widening the Mt Messenger tunnel, creating a 6.4km bypass west of the highway, or thirdly, building a 5.3km bypass further west towards the coastline to rejoin the Awakino gorge.
The latter option, option 3, is currently preferred among the transport industry and the community, but is opposed by iwi.
Bridges said once a decision was made on one of three road options, motorists would enjoy a more efficient and direct route, and the Taranaki region would be more closely connected to transport links in the Waikato and upper North Island.
"We want the most efficient, safe and direct route which will bring the most benefit to the community," he said.
More discussion was needed before the project got underway, but he was confident cultural and conservation issues would be solved for the project to go ahead, he said.
Bridges said there had been a huge amount of discussion and there was a huge desire by the community to proceed.
"There are conservation and cultural issues still to be decided but I am confident we will get there to achieve a strong and direct transport route," Bridges said.
Endangered kokako birds are to be released soon in the area which could become part of the option 3 route.
Relocation of the birds was an option to be discussed if the highway was diverted through the area, Bridges said.
Poutama spokesman Haumoana White said the iwi would prefer the existing highway upgraded.
"We are the resident iwi and we want a safe road and we believe if the existing road is upgraded it won't be as damaging environmentally, or culturally, and would have the least amount of disruption," he said.
White said there were numerous wahi tapu sites, such as middens, fortifications and burial sites, along the option three route which were significant to iwi and should not be disturbed.
He said the project was being driven by road transport and political interests with little consultation with the community.
A Ngati Tama representative at the launch declined to comment.
The hapu has an area of reserve within the option three route.
Road Transport Association Taranaki executive member Tom Cloke said the project would benefit all of Taranaki.
"The latest improvements will provide continuity of flow for traffic and provide safer driving," he said.
"The safety upgrade is a good one for the transport industry, there are a lot of positives about it that will flow on from the Mt Messenger upgrade."
More passing lanes and road straightening is planned in the first stage upgrade to provide safer and more efficient travel along the 58km stretch of highway.
Last month a decision was made to build two bridges to cross the Awakino River and bypass the Awakino tunnel.
- Taranaki Daily News