Stormy row over Ashburton's new bridge

SAM SHERWOOD
Last updated 05:00 31/01/2014

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Mid Canterbury Selwyn

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When Ashburton Mayor Angus McKay cast the deciding vote on the location of a controversial new bridge in the thriving Mid-Canterbury town, he could never have guessed the anger it would generate.

Last year's vote to locate the new bridge, pegged to take traffic off State Highway 1, has divided the town with some members of the public branding McKay "a disgrace to the chair".

The council last week revealed 95 per cent of the submissions on the new bridge were against it.

Diane Rawlinson, the head of an action group against the bridge, told The Press she had never "known anything to raise the public ire like this bridge issue has".

So why is Ashburton so split over a new bridge? The reasoning behind the bridge, set to be built in 2026, was to help ease traffic congestion and provide a second route if the existing bridge cannot be used. The nearest alternative is 60 kilometres away.

Rawlinson disagreed, citing the lone bridge servicing Rakaia.

"Every town that has a bridge naturally has an issue if there's an accident, we are not unique in that situation," she said.

The initial plans for a new bridge identified 12 possible routes, all running through Tinwald, a suburb south of Ashburton. Those were reduced to two - one going through a dense residential area on Grove St, and the other involving a new road being developed through urban land.

Some Tinwald residents opposed the bridge going through Grove St because of the potential reduction in property value and disturbance to those living in the area.

The council chose to go with the less populated route, but two independent commissioners, a barrister and a traffic engineer, will first hear the public submissions.

The commissioners will report back to the council, which will make the final decision.

Councillor and former chairman of the bridge action group Alasdair Urquhart said he did not believe the bridge would "address our traffic issues of the future".

He hoped the commissioners would consider the number of submissions against the proposed route. "We are not a very big community and that is an awful lot of submissions for a community of this size," Urquhart said.

McKay said the anger directed towards him was "very healthy discussion".

He did not believe the outcome would define his mayoralty. "I applaud the people that have a view one way or the other because they have thought about it.

"I have always tried to keep as open a mind as possible and that's why I'm pleased that it's going to independent commissioners."

McKay's "dream" was a four-lane highway between the Timaru and Lyttleton ports but believed the proposal being considered would work for the "present trends of the future town developments".

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How much funding the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) would contribute to the project was not known.

Its survey showed less than 30 per cent of traffic on the existing bridge was state highway traffic.

NZTA was therefore willing to pay a projected 56 per cent of the cost of the new bridge, leaving ratepayers to pay between $12 million to $15m.

Rawlinson said the bridge action group was not against a second bridge being built, but wanted the NZTA to fund the entire project and another route with fewer effects on residents to be chosen.

"There is no simple answer, and I know a lot of people that don't know anything about it might look at that and think, ‘Well why do they object to it', but it's just that they could do it a lot better," she said. "[The council] are going to spend all this money, why would you put such big severance into part of your community?"

- © Fairfax NZ News

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