Southern Link: For the greater good

ITALIAN STYLE: Nelsonian Steve Fitchett near an Italian autostrada near San Vito on the Adriatic coast.
ITALIAN STYLE: Nelsonian Steve Fitchett near an Italian autostrada near San Vito on the Adriatic coast.

Driving around Italy over the last couple of weeks, from Milan via the Cinque Terre to Florence and Siena, then south to Cassino before crossing the Apennines to Ravenna, we've been thinking a lot about roads.

We've experienced every type of road from speeding down the eight lane "super-strada" that connects Rome and Naples to hurriedly backing our rental car out of narrow, cobbled, "no cars allowed" lanes in medieval cities.

It's been interesting and challenging, and occasionally a little embarrassing, but while our progress across Italy's highways might not have been perfectly executed, the roads, with a few bumpy exceptions, were in very good shape indeed.

Italy's roads, especially the auto-stradas, do their job with inimitable Italian style. Driving south on the auto-strada from Milan to port city La Spezia, near the Cinque Terre, cost us € 20 in tolls, but we would willingly have paid more just to drive the route.

Especially spectacular when approaching the Italian Riviera, viaducts fly across deep gullies and tunnels disappear into steep ridges from which you emerge to picture postcard views of the coast. And just west of Genoa at the port of Voltri the road takes an exhilarating dive downwards, via two long spiralling viaducts linked by curving tunnels, spitting you out breathless at sea level.

Italy's auto-stradas have an almost arrogant disregard for the natural contours of the land they cross. However, you cannot deny that these roads hold their haughty noses in the air with great style as they float across the countryside.

It's not only the auto-stradas that have impressed us. At Cassino, site of the infamous World War II battle, the road that winds gracefully back and forth across the steep face of Montecassino is almost as impressive as the abbey itself. And, driving to renaissance city Urbino, the smooth, beautifully cambered two-lane road wound through the countryside, climbing steadily, each corner revealing another perfect La Marche view.

Perhaps the Italians argue about roads, whether this or that one should be built - I don't know; but I know we argue about them in New Zealand, often bitterly.

Given their cost and impact, we should weigh up the pros and cons of roading projects very carefully before booking the asphalt trucks. But a lot of the anti-roading arguments are "not in my backyard" arguments, and we need to consider these sorts of arguments very carefully indeed.

No-one welcomes the prospect of a large highway near their property. We should know, living next to Whakatu Drive in Stoke. But apart from losing the pukekos that regularly raided our vegetable garden and gaining some intermittently annoying road noise, we have not suffered any disadvantage.

And, for us, the advantage of not having to negotiate Main Road Stoke's traffic twice a day out-weighs the loss of the pukekos and the addition of the road noise.

When it comes to the controversial southern link, I believe it is time to start construction. There are arguments against the road, and no doubt the facts and figures regarding traffic projections and air pollution are soundly researched and accurate.

However, these arguments don't take into account bigger picture issues to do with the greater good of the whole region.

And the "greater good" arguments are powerful: releasing Rocks Road from its burden of heavy trucks so it can become the stunning scenic and recreational road it should be, easing traffic congestion at peak hours and providing a vital third accessway into Nelson City with its hospital and emergency services the region relies on.

I believe that these arguments carry more weight than those opposing the project. And any future government's review of the Resource Management Act could give these arguments more influence.

The decision to go ahead with the road will be political; and it has to be because, by its nature, the southern link issue is more about weighing up the needs and desires of the people of the whole region than it is about facts and figures that bolster one community's arguments against it.

It is telling that in the Mail's online opinion poll (July 30), more than twice as many people clicked the "Yes, it's long overdue" button (65.5 per cent) than those selecting the "No, it's not needed" option (31.9 per cent).

In New Zealand, we make decisions like this all the time. The reforms in education that brought in national standards took no heed of the facts and figures produced by educational research on the effectiveness of such programmes.

The Government making the decision didn't pay much attention to the educational community who opposed the changes either. A political decision to implement national standards was made because the politicians judged that more voters wanted them than not.

Was the national standards decision a good decision? The jury is still out. And, if the southern link road does go ahead, the jury will remain out on that also - we won't t know if the decision was a good one until the road has been in place for more than a few years.

Is this a risky way to make big decisions? Yes - welcome to democracy where the majority, even if it is not always right, holds the power.

In the meantime, however, I'd like to recommend we get some Italian road engineers to work on the project.

If we could afford a tunnel through the Port Hills, they'd have to be the go-to guys and if we can't afford a tunnel, the Italians could certainly build us an elegant road that would enhance the cityscape as well as improve its traffic flow.

The Nelson Mail