Manawatu Gorge closure puts transport businesses in a pothole

Road works on Woodlands Rd, between Saddle Rd and Woodville.

Saddle Rd needs constant maintenance to cope with heavy traffic.

Trucking companies are counting the cost of the indefinite closure of the Manawatu Gorge route.

The road has been closed since April 24 when a large slip covered both lanes of State Highway 3, between Palmerston North and Woodsville.

Palmerston North trucking company, Winiata Distribution owner Nigel Winiata said the alternative Saddle Road route added 15 to 20 minutes each way to his trips to and from Hawke’s Bay.

Winiata has a fleet of four trucks that deliver groceries for Foodstuffs around the lower North Island.

Foodstuffs owns the Pak ‘n Save and New World supermarket chains.

He said for a business with small profit margins, the road closure took its toll on his bottom line.

He had not sat down to calculate the costs of the extra petrol, tyre replacements, and other wear and tear since April but said he would hate to look at it.

“You can’t wear that sort of thing because the margins are just so fine. It’s a very cutthroat industry.”​

Winiata said the Saddle Road and the Pahiatua Track had “taken a hell of a hammering” with the increased traffic.

A month ago two trucking accidents on each of the alternative routes halted traffic for an entire morning on the Saddle Rd and caused congestion on the Pahiatua track.

New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) has spent $8.5 million dollars upgrading Saddle Rd from a “goat track”, but Winiata the road is rapidly degrading.

“We’ve got pothole after pothole, it’s just getting chewed right up.”

“Definitely an alternative route up to highway-standard would be good.”

NZTA regional transport system manager Ross l’Anson said more work on the road was planned.

“The reality is that the Saddle Rd will effectively be functioning as the state highway connection for this part of the country for some time.”

About 5500 vehicles a day on Saddle Rd in June according to Tararua District Council figures.

The NZTA took over the maintenance and management of Saddle Rd on Friday from the Tararua District Council.
Council chief executive Blair King said it still in negotiations with the NZTA over maintenance of the Pahiatua Track, where an incident could back-up traffic for four or five hours.

King said about 75 per cent of traffic that once used the Manawatu Gorge was now using Saddle Rd twhile the other 25 per cent used the Pahiatua Track.

Upgrades on Saddle Rd have focused on making the road less winding for trucks, but King said this also made the road steeper.

King said when Fonterra milk trucks start using the Pahiatua Track in about two weeks, the roads would deteriorate even faster.

Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley is urging NZTA and the Government to “bite the bullet” now to commit to an enduring solution for the Manawatu Gorge.

“It is vital that we find a solution that can be relied on and will not require the almost constant remedial work the gorge has required in recent times.”

Shirley said if money was no object a tunnel would be the most logical option.

ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie said the gorge closure would have a regional economic impact, but not a national one.

“That Gorge hasn’t been operational for a little while already so by and large business is still going on, it’s just that the easiest route is out.”

Bagrie said an expensive “gold-plated solution” might not be the best idea.

“There are endless possibilities, but of course there is not a bottomless pot of money.”

– Stuff

NZTA reviews new Manawatu Gorge routes

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) is reviewing alternative routes through the Manawatu Gorge after another major slip cut off the road. It’s the third major slip in the past six years.

But with options ranging in price from $120 million to $1.8 billion, it will be years before the region sees any big changes.

“We will continue to look at what option there might be to replace or have an alternative route as a State Highway to the gorge,” says NZTA highway manager Ross I’Anson.

The options aren’t cheap. Building roads just north or just south of the gorge would cost between $120 and $300 million.

Another option is to build several bridges criss-crossing along the river at a cost of $415 million.

A tunnel going through the area would cost a whopping $1.8 billion.

Aside from the cost, other drawbacks include having to remove wind turbines and steep terrain.

The gorge is expected to be closed for three weeks and two detours are in place.

When the road is cut, businesses that rely on traffic passing through, especially those in Woodville, are hit hard.

The local mayor says although shop owners are nervous when the gorge gets cut, there isn’t much appetite for an alternative route.

In the meantime locals are hoping predicted bad weather won’t slow down the clean-up.