A final decision on Transmission Gully will be made by the end of the year.
But regardless of whether it wins over a coastal highway upgrade, the Government will pay.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce has named the northern corridor between Levin and Wellington as one of seven "roads of national significance" the Government wants improved quickly.
They would be funded from $10.7billion earmarked for state highway construction over the next 10 years.
Mr Joyce said yesterday that the Transport Agency which will determine which roads are built and when was working as quickly as possible on priorities for the corridor, and he expected a final answer on the Gully this year.
"I am very conscious that people have waited many, many years to know the answer to that question."
But he signalled the agency was likely to give priority to bottlenecks north of Waikanae, rather than the Gully or its alternative further south.
"[For] the Levin to Wellington corridor, they will likely come back and say, `Here are a range of projects' ... but they will be particularly focusing on the northern end where there hasn't been a lot of work done."
Unclogging the entire 100km road could cost between $1.8b and $2b, but had to be completed in the right order. "It would be a pity if everybody thought they had signed up to Transmission Gully and that was going to solve all the Wellington northern access issues, only to find that, at the Waikanae lights, at the Otaki roundabout, at the Paraparaumu lights, all the problems that they had previously experienced were still there."
The previous Government pledged $400 million toward the $1.025b Gully route after it was chosen by local councils, leaving ratepayers, the scrapped regional fuel tax and tolls to bridge the gap.
But Mr Joyce said whichever option was chosen would now be funded by central government.
No effective way had been found to fill the $600m hole. "Tolling wouldn't have covered it ... The councils didn't have the money. It was a pretty tough way of trying to manage expectations around the completion of a roading project."
Labour transport spokesman Darren Hughes said the focus on the northern end of the route showed the Government's "ambivalence" to the Gully. "The Government is softening up Wellington to ditch Transmission Gully."
Greater Wellington regional council chairwoman Fran Wilde said she was delighted the northern corridor had been included in the top seven priorities.
"It is very good news that finally a government has actually specified that Levin to the airport is an important route for the national network and the good of the nation."
Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast also welcomed the inclusion of the entire corridor to Levin as a road of national significance, and said a final decision on the Gully would end years of uncertainty. "We need to resolve all the roading issues, so it's good that we'll have some finality around that by the end of the year."
Mr Joyce said the most urgent projects were in or near the five largest population centres. "These are seven of our most essential routes, as a country, that require work to reduce congestion, improve safety and support economic growth."
There was "no directive" to the Transport Agency to rank those above other projects, but it had been given a sense of the Government's priorities. "We are asking them to rise to the challenge to do as much of this as possible over the next 10 years."
Benefit-cost ratios would still be used to rank the projects.
Puhoi to Wellsford, north of the recently opened toll road north of Auckland. The completion of the Auckland western ring route, including the proposed $1 billion Waterview Tunnel. The Victoria Park bottleneck, on the cityside of Auckland Harbour Bridge. The Waikato Expressway. The Tauranga eastern corridor. Motorway projects around Christchurch.
- The Dominion Post
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