Editorial: Money trails

With 54 regions across the country bidding for a slice of $50 million earmarked for the New Zealand Cycle Trail project, there were always going to be winners and losers.

Unfortunately, when the Ministry of Tourism released the list last week of which 13 proposals got the nod, and the money, to proceed to the feasibility study stage, Environment Canterbury's Mountains to Sea trail from Arthur's Pass to the Waimakariri River mouth was not among them. There will still be a cycleway from the mountains to the sea, but this Alps to Ocean scheme will be located further south, between Aoraki/Mt Cook and Oamaru.

When the cycle trail proposal was unveiled by its architect, Prime Minister John Key, as one of the few concrete projects to emerge from his overhyped Job Summit, there were plenty of sceptics. Certainly his idea of a national cycle trail running the length of the country has been pared back to a more affordable series of individual rides showcasing natural attractions.

But the number of bids for funding suggests that Key's idea has defied its initial critics and captured the imagination of many New Zealanders and local councils.

The keen contest for funding is partly due to the success of the Otago Central Rail Trail, which also once had its doubters but has since injected much-needed domestic and international tourist dollars into that region.

This success prompted one backer of the Alps to Ocean scheme to declare that the project would be the biggest thing for the Mackenzie Country "since the Hermitage was built and a guy called James McKenzie rustled some sheep". In addition to the tourism potential, if the feasibility study is successful this trail could gain $2.75m in government funding for its construction.

The bottom half of the South Island is one of the major cycle trail winners with three projects in Central Otago, plus an earlier announced scheme between Queenstown and Southland. All are near the Otago Central Rail Trail and all feature magnificent scenery.

Although proposed trails on the West Coast and Nelson-Tasman will receive feasibility funding, no new cycle trails were approved between South Canterbury and Marlborough. Already announced had been a trail through the St James mountain range near Hanmer, but this is only one-third as long as Canterbury's multi-day Mountains to the Sea proposal, and the Little River Rail Trail is even shorter.

The Canterbury proposal had the attraction of tourists being able to take a train to Arthur's Pass before cycling back through scenic countryside to the sea. But it might be that, rightly or wrongly, officials believed there were technical difficulties in building it at an affordable price.

A Mid-Canterbury bid for funding also failed. It proposed extending the existing cycle trail between Lake Hood and Ashburton through Mt Somers and Methven to the Rakaia River. But early indications are that this trail's backers will seek to complete their project without government financial help. So, too, ECan should put last week's set-back behind it and investigate alternative funding sources to enable its cycle trail to be built.

The Press