Work to re-open State Highway 1 north of Kaikoura 'imminent'
On the coastal highway between Kaikoura and Clarence the earthquake brought down enough debris to fill Westpac Stadium, the equivalent of 300 Olympic swimming pools.
The nine major slips along that section of State Highway 1 are what contractors will be working to clear, but the first step is making it safe enough for workers and equipment on the ground.
New Zealand Transport Agency earthquake recovery manager Steve Mutton said helicopters had been sluicing the slip at Ohau Point, the former seal colony site, since mid-December.
"It's important that we are able to make access safe for our workers to Ohau Point to commence work on that site, because it's by far the largest slip and will take the longest to create a resilient and safe network for our customers," he said.
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In the three days to Tuesday, six helicopters had been sluicing the slip to dislodge enough loose material to make it safe for ground crews to approach Ohau Point from the north and the south.
Mutton said he expected that to happen from next week, with crews using diggers and large trucks from both the Kaikoura and Clarence ends of the closed highway to converge on the biggest slip.
NZTA national transition manager Dave Brash said last month work clearing the slips could begin by Wednesday, but Mutton said it depended on when it was safe enough to allow crews on the ground.
"When the work has got to a stage where we feel safe enough to bring in our workers and equipment, we'll start building some tracks past the slips on the outer edge," he said.
"We'll start going around the bottom of the large slips and clearing the smaller slips but the objective is to get to Ohau Point from the north and the south."
Between 150 and 200 workers from the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery alliance would start working on the ground when it was deemed safe.
The alliance, made up of construction companies, NZTA and KiwiRail, was formed in the wake of the earthquake to repair SH1 and the railway line north and south of Kaikoura.
The roading crews would work on all the slips at once, as opposed to just focusing on Ohau Point, but Mutton said it was important safe access was secured to the largest slip.
It had not been decided whether material from the slips would be pushed onto the newly risen seabed, which was a possibility for contractors under new legislation that was rushed through Parliament last month.
"We're still working on our design to determine what the best route for State Highway 1 is there, north of Kaikoura," Mutton said.
"We may have to place some of the material on the edge of the coastal marine area, but it would be a placement, not a dump."
The overall cost to the Government of repairing the damaged transport system was estimated to be up to $2 billion.
Transport Minister Simon Bridges previously said restoring access to SH1 north from Kaikoura was expected within 12 months, something Mutton said was still the case.
Kaikoura Mayor Winston Gray said it was vitally important SH1 was re-opened, and while he was not aware of the date work on the ground would begin he assumed it was imminent.
Gray dismissed the suggestion the work was taking too long to complete, saying it was important the new road was built with resilience in mind.
"It's very easy to just rush in with the machinery and push the debris off the road to get it going again, but they've got to future-proof the highway for the long-term," he said.
However, Marlborough Road Carriers Association chairman Peter Heagney had a different opinion.
The owner of Heagney Bros Ltd, a Marlborough-based freight company, said he was pleased work was about to begin but felt more could have been done to open the road sooner.
"I know it's an engineering feat, but I just think they should have started a lot sooner to get it open," he said.
"It's had a huge effect on Kaikoura and their economy, there's enough expertise and big equipment in New Zealand to have made a better start to clear it up.
"I think most transport people and people in Kaikoura would say the same."
Heagney said it took about seven-and-a-half hours for freight carriers taking the alternative inland route from Blenheim to Christchurch through Lewis Pass.
The added drive-time increased the cost for freight companies, which was passed onto their customers, such as Marlborough farmers looking to offload stock by sending them to Canterbury.
Truckies were limited to driving 11 hours a day, which meant they were unable to make two runs, from Blenheim to Christchurch and back, like they could before the earthquake, Heagney said.
"It's been a bit disappointing for people this side of Kaikoura that there hasn't been any action compared with the south side," he said.
"The slips won't just go away by looking at them every day."
- The Marlborough Express