Friday, December 1, 2023

Cut-off community digs in for vital road project

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Slip and bridge loss left farmers, community and iwi in the Tokomaru Bay region isolated to the north and the south
Kuru Contracting site manager Val Milham and local 8-year-old Ormond Hope on site at the Hikuwai road project.
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A Tairāwhiti roading project overseen by a community isolated by Cyclone Gabrielle could set a precedent for rural communities (hapori taiwhenua) elsewhere wanting to re-connect with the rest of the country.

The cyclone left farmers, community and iwi in the Tokomaru Bay region isolated to the north and the south, thanks to the loss of a major bridge on the Hikuwai River towards Gisborne and a major slip to the north.

But an initiative between local forest road construction company Kuru Contracting and iwi landowners has heavy machinery busily forming a bypass route in the Three Bridges district. The new road will leave state highway 35 at the destroyed Hikuwai No1 bridge, re-connecting with the No 3 bridge 4km north.

The road follows farm tracks and a paper road along spurs crossing land owned by Pourau Incorporation.

An independent engineer’s report on the road project concluded the diversion is a good option, recommending normal gravel road practices be used considering the fragility of the landscape after recent events.

The project has proven a good morale booster for the battered community, with the Tolaga Bay-based contracting business providing plenty of heavy equipment.

Val Milham, site manager for Kuru Contracting, said the wet weather that has continued post-Gabrielle has been a challenge, but he is confident the road will be completed by late March.

“Then we are straight onto the next job, there is no shortage of work up here at the moment.”

Contractors are confident the detour will be open by the end of March, allowing heavy traffic access for forestry and farms that are otherwise cut off to the north and south.

Kuru Contracting and Pourau Incorporation have just received written confirmation from Waka Kotahi that the roading authority will underwrite the project, subject to some conditions including access and safety considerations.

Pourau shareholder Kylee Potae said while the devil remains in the detail, the project could also provide a good exemplar of a co-governance project.

“This is uncharted territory, but it’s a good challenge to have. My gut feeling is iwi will retain land ownership, but Waka Kotahi will have rights to manage the road on that land.” 

She said maybe after recent events and so much road damage, agencies like Waka Kotahi may be compelled to take a wider lens on corridors now not always fit for purpose.

Federated Farmers transport spokesperson Mark Hooper said there is a high level of community support for the initiative, given that a proposed Bailey bridge project at the No 1 bridge will not be capable of handling heavy traffic.

“For many farmers in the district it is not so much about getting feed into their farms, it is about being able to get stock off. If your water reticulation and fences are gone, you have to get that stock off.”

Kuru Contracting is experienced in forest road construction, with strong family links to the district.

Hooper said while the proposed Bailey bridge would still be welcome, the new route will provide quicker access, and a viable alternative route should future weather events damage or destroy the bridges.

“The No1 bridge, it is a big bridge at 90m long and requires a special Bailey bridge to replace it, while there is thought the No 2 bridge may have also been compromised.”

As other rural communities, including Patoka and Kaiwaka in Hawke’s Bay, continue to grapple with the prospect of lengthy isolation, Hooper said the Hikuwai project could also provide an incentive for rural communities to consider how they remain connected in future.

“There is a question here about responsibility and authority. 

“It used to be local roads boards had the authority to do local repair jobs. We have got ourselves caught in this system where the process requires a work order application, a traffic plan, an engineers’ report, a contestable funding application. 

“Firms are contesting on lowest cost, often lacking experienced staff. 

“An element of community ownership and responsibility is quite important. Small local operators used to do these jobs on local roads.”

He believes it could be time to re-assess the entire local roading approach in light of events like Gabrielle and Hale.

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