Scepticism about fix for broken Manawatu Gorge
HEARTLAND SPECIAL: 'Hi, I'm from the Government and I'm here to help ...' That's the old gag, and right now it rings brutally hollow to Manawatu Gorge locals after a series of visiting politicians with empty promises.
As truckie Marsh Graham creeps up Saddle Rd he is taunted by a driver tooting frantically behind him.
The hills are capped lightly with snow on this cold August day, and the view of countless wind turbines is pretty.
But things become heated as the tooting car draws closer and Graham's 10-month old truck battles to crawl up the temporary highway, an alternative route to the Manawatu Gorge that was closed on April 24.
Riding along with the Mainfreight contractor, the effects of the State Highway 3 closure are stark.
For the past 10 years Graham has been delivering goods to small businesses in Dannevirke daily or twice-daily from Palmerston North. It's a run he hopes to continue until he retires in seven years as the people are kind and the drive is usually enjoyable.
But increased diesel costs of $300 a-month and more wear and tear on his truck will take their toll if the gorge is closed for years to come, he says.
During the 2011/12 closure, which lasted 14 months, Graham was more than $20,000 out of pocket. But he kept the Dannevirke run in the hopes the Government would fix Saddle Rd and start work on an alternative route.
Fast forward five years, and Saddle Rd is laden with potholes, almost too narrow to keep within the median strips, and the Government is only just picking out the best permanent alternative to SH3 on paper.
In July, Transport Minister Simon Bridges announced a decision on a new route will be made by December and it will be ready to use within three years.
A few days later, Labour's then-leader Andrew Little promised to have it ready-to-go in well under three years.
Graham fears that both parties are full of false promises as the plans for an alternative route have been sitting with NZTA for five years and nothing has been done.
NZTA has invested $8.5 million to upgrade Saddle Rd, which should be finished by summer, but Graham says in its current condition the "goat track" is dangerous, slow, and wears down his truck.
There should have been a flat road built years ago, he says. But truck drivers who pay heavy road user charges aren't being heard.
"We are there and back everyday and we haven't got a decent road. We deserve that."
WHEN BUSINESS ISN'T BOOMING IN WOODVILLE
Graham isn't alone in his fight to be heard by the Government.
Fish n chip shop owners John Gooding and Judy Thomson are also struggling to see why nothing has been done sooner.
The Woodville couple are in for trying times as they wait for the deserted streets in their usually vibrant town to perk-up.
Drivers are typically bypassing Woodville once they've been over Saddle Rd.
When Gooding and Thomson opened their shop 17 years ago they never imagined they would be down 30 per cent in profit because of gorge closures.
Back then, the gorge was narrower and had less work done to it, but since the rock face has been drilled into further and further it's no surprise its become unstable, Gooding says.
Bridges visited Gooding to let him know a route will be created in due course. But Bridges failed to answer whether the road would go through Woodville or what is being done immediately to re-route traffic into the sleepy town.
Although Gooding's questions were unanswered and he has the added stress of wondering how much he'll lose out in a week, he still gets up about 3.30am with a smile.
His shop is his pride and joy and he has a need to make everyday better than the last, he says.
His partner says she too wants to focus on the positives. As soon as the Government finds a way to re-route traffic into the town it will be business as usual, Thomson says.
SILENCE IS BROKEN BY A RUMBLE IN ASHHURST
While Woodville struggles to get traffic though its main street, Ashhurst resident Nic Green is stuck with noisy trucks rumbling past his home.
Twenty years ago the real estate agent warned Green that Saddle Rd was used as the alternative route to the gorge. But Green didn't think twice, as he thought a day or two of gorge closures surely wouldn't bother him.
Little did he know that engine brakes would serve as an alarm clock about 4.30am most mornings on what is now the noisiest corner of Ashhurst.
Green lives on the corner of Salisbury and Mulgrave streets, which lead to Saddle Rd.
Where there used to be children happily walking themselves to school, there are now cats mowed down by heavy traffic and weary parents that walk their children to school, Green says.
His faith in the Government's promise to have an alternative route within three years diminished in 2011 when his street became a motorway for 14 months and nothing was done to fix the problem.
Now he's simply reliving the same scenario.
The election will pass in September and the people living in Ashhurst will be forgotten again, Green says.
"I honestly don't think it's going to get bumped up the list."
Parties promising a long-term fix need to stop talking about it, "pull their fingers out" and get it sorted, Green says.
It's time to return to Palmerston North, after my long and windy ride-along with truckie Marsh Graham.
He reckons he's seen at least two-dozen cars on the side of the road with damaged tyres from pothole mishaps. I don't doubt this for a second.
I brake as a car overtakes a truck, just metres from a school entrance. The driver takes no notice of the barriers installed to make the street safer.
Similarly Saddle Rd remains a problem with few fixes. The road has significantly improved in the past two weeks, since NZTA took over maintenance work from surrounding councils, but it's still hard to miss the multiplying potholes.
- Sunday Star Times