The lifeline for southern West Coast communities was restored last night as a flood-damaged bridge on the region's main highway reopened ahead of schedule.
A section of the bridge spanning the Wanganui River at Harihari was washed away on January 2 when it was overcome by a torrent of water following heavy rain.
It was scheduled to reopen today but workers made better than expected progress on repairs and the first traffic crossed over at 6.15pm yesterday.
NZ Transport Agency West Coast senior asset manager Mark Pinner said there was "no point in waiting".
"Our contractors took advantage of every scrap of daylight from 6am to 9pm to rebuild the highway and their hard work has paid off."
Bay of Plenty couple Phil and June Pharo were the first to cross after spending three nights at a campsite just north of the bridge waiting in their motor home. "It's been quite neat actually," a smiling June, 60, said.
Despite their long delay, they planned to stop at Harihari, just south of the bridge "to give them some custom they've missed out on", she said.
Some West Coast businesses cut off by the closure had been losing $10,000 a day as tourist traffic on the road plummeted.
Tourism West Coast chief executive Jim Little said the reopening was "fantastic news for the whole of the West Coast".
"It's the best thing that can happen to us," he said.
"It hasn't been as frantically busy as it should be at this time of year.
Franz Inc business group chairman Marcel Fekkes said the reopening "could not have come soon enough" for local businesses.
He expected there to be an influx to the region of tourists who had to delay their plans after the bridge was washed out.
"We've just had some phone calls from people who put their plans back a bit ring saying ‘Can we come now?'
"It's starting to happen," he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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