Farmers and the new Government agree that Northland urgently needs a fix for State Highway 1 through the Brynderwyn Hills.
Colin Hannah, Federated Farmers Northland president, believes many Northlanders would also support a toll option if it accelerated progress on widening and upgrading a greater length of the crucial stretch of highway.
Federated Farmers Northland, Northland Chamber of Commerce (NorthChamber), the Employers and Manufacturers Association and others are pushing for a four-lane highway from Warkworth to Whangārei, tolled if necessary.
“The sooner it gets done the better, and if it’s a toll road to make the finances work, so be it,” Hannah says.
“The Northland economy is just being strangled by the current poor roading infrastructure.”
Northland Inc has calculated for every day the road is closed, it costs the local economy close to $2 million in lost tourist revenue, extra freight costs and other disruption.
National’s coalition agreement with NZ First includes: “Commit to building a four-lane highway alternative for the Brynderwyns and investigate the use of private finance to accelerate construction.”
That’s the only road route specifically mentioned in the agreement – an indication of its priority. Tolls are one way of paying back private equity investment.
At Federated Farmers events for Northland rural communities in the past year, Hannah has asked farmers if they’d be in favour of the Warkworth to Whangarei upgrade, even if it meant a toll.
“I haven’t had a single ‘no’.
“Even as far up as Waiharahara, north of Kaitaita, farmers were in favour. They told me, ‘let’s just get it done’.”
Waka Kotahi has “mucked Northland around”, Hannah says.
“I’ve been to at least five meetings in the last six years to talk about longer-term Northland road solutions and nothing has come of any of them. I don’t think it’s just the funding side of things; I don’t think there’s a will there to do it.
“With a toll road, the funding is quite structured, quite different.”
Former Federated Farmers Northland president John Blackwell, who’s on Northland Regional Council’s roading committee, agrees the Brynderwyns stretch of SH1 isn’t the only problem.
If a toll is a circuit-breaker for larger-scale improvement, “I’d certainly entertain the idea”, he says.
All parties agree that the priority is a solution for the increasingly fragile route through the Brynderwyn Hills.
Waka Kotahi has confirmed $61 million has been approved to repair damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle and build in some resilience “for the immediate to medium term”.
“This is to ensure that the key route can withstand future weather events and disruptions this coming winter and the immediate years to follow,” a Waka Kotahi statement issued late November stated.
But the work means the route will be closed to all traffic for an extended period.
Two options were originally on the table: closure from Waitangi Day (February 6) to Easter Weekend (7.5 weeks, including allowing 13 rain days); or closure post-Easter weekend (10 weeks, including 34 rains days). The options sparked plenty of debate between tourism operators, freight companies and others.
However, the country’s transport agency announced on December 19 that the road will be closed from February 26 until March 27. SH1 will then reopen for six days over the Easter period before closing again on April 3.
Traffic management/delays are expected for much of the next 12 months.
It’s a bitter pill for Northland, Blackwell says, considering the road has already been closed for 73 days over the last 12 months.
The earlier the work is done, the better as far as Blackwell is concerned.
“I think farmers and many others want to see that route secured, and prefer going earlier. It gives you a much better option with ground conditions for the heavy machinery that will be involved.”
When the Brynderwyns are closed, alternative routes are Paparoa to Oakleigh, or the coastal route from Mangawhai to Waipu (Cove Rd), which add about 45 minutes and 20 minutes respectively to an Auckland to Whangarei journey.
Neither of those alternatives are state highways and neither are suitable for larger trucks.
“Trucks can use those routes, but they’re not rated for 50 tonne-plus. They need to go through Dargaville, which is a long hike,” Blackwell says.
“You’d have to say both of those alternative routes under high traffic use are higher risk to operate because they’re not designed for that.”
Repairs and improvements are already being made on both roads in anticipation of the extended closure of Brynderwyn Hills.
Farmers are frustrated but it’s an even bigger deal for foresters trying to get logs to Marsden Point, Blackwell says.
“The charges are higher for everyone to get product up and down here, so it affects our entire economy.”
Debate continues about the best longer-term alternative route for a four-lane highway over the Brynderwyns. Hope remains that whatever route is chosen, it becomes part of a bigger Warkworth to Whangarei improvement package.
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.