Editorial: No Open Sesame for tunnel

It turns out Milford Dart tunnel promoters were just banging their heads on a rock wall.

However, Conservation Minister Nick Smith's decision to decline the $180 million project that would have cut through 11km of mountain and halved the travel time between Queenstown and Milford Sound is interestingly worded.

Dr Smith cites three major reasons - the half-million tonnes of tunnel spoil, the impact of new roads and portals, particularly at the entrance to the Routeburn track, and that the engineering works and tunnel are deemed inconsistent with the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Park management plans.

All of which he sums up as nature getting the benefit of any doubt. But then he is very quick to add, in effect, that he had concerns that Milford Dart Ltd would do the job properly. To make such a long, narrow tunnel safe would require huge investment in ventilation and emergency services and Dr Smith identifies a risk that corners would be cut, or the project left half-completed with the public left with a clean-up liability. Though it didn't make his top three reasons, the suspicion arises that it loomed rather large in his thinking for all that.

By contrast, it is worth noting for the record that the often-rumbled warnings that Unesco world heritage status would be seriously imperilled by the tunnel were a fat red herring. Such an impact was unlikely, the minister acknowledged, given that Unesco had no concerns about the similarly scaled Manapouri tailrace tunnel, nor visitor facility developments in world heritage areas elsewhere in the world.

Milford Dart managing director Tony Elworthy sees Dr Smith's decision was essentially political. There was certainly a great deal of political heat based on fears not only for the environment, but the economic consequences for a bypassed Te Anau. So this could be called a political decision. Or, given the greater scale of demonstrated opposition, a democratic one.

The tunnel idea wasn't inherently a terrible one at all. The broader notion of getting tourists more easily to their destination is a good one. As things stand the bus trip from Queenstown to Milford and back, for all that it offers memorable rewards, is also a grinding endurance test and needlessly so.

The Greens argue that the agenda should be to slow visitors down so they stay longer and spend more, rather than pushing them 11km underground "to save a few hours' travel". Apart from the question of how much better off we, or our visitors, really are keeping all those buses thundering along the existing, longer road route, there's the small matter of how wilful we should be about denying them a choice. It's one thing to tempt them to spend time; another to prevent them having much of an alternative.

Te Anau has problems. In contrast to Wanaka and Queenstown it hasn't benefited half as much as it wants from tourist growth. Nor will it, until we find a way to make it easier or more attractive for tourists to spend time there.

The separate proposal from Riverstone Holdings for the Fiordland Link Experience, taking passengers from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs via catamaran, all-terrain vehicle and monorail through the Snowdon Forest area, has passed the public submission stage, with the minister yet to make his decision. Even though the monorail passes over DOC estate but not national park land, it will also face ferocious opposition.

We'll see what happens. But roll on the day that the Haast-Hollyford road proposal gets the go-ahead. The case for connecting the West Coast to Southland is just compelling.

The Southland Times