An aerial view of the Manawatu Gorge slip near Woodville. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

By Jake Beleski

New Zealand First deputy leader Ron Mark has launched a scathing attack on the government’s handling of the Manawatu Gorge closure.

The closure has forced traffic onto the Saddle Rd and Pahiatua Track, but Mr Mark said they were not viable alternatives.

“I’ve been over the saddle six times in the last three weeks, and I’ve been over the Pahiatua Track four times.

“The saddle is in shocking state — even the upgraded bit is falling apart.”

He said the response had been “appalling”, and that it was time to change the people making decisions at all levels.

“I think the first thing is to change all the people making the decisions, because there’s a failure at every level to comprehend the strategic importance of the road that connects Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and Tararua with Rangitikei, Manawatu and, going further, to Taranaki and the Wellington region.

“Even the dimmest little mind sipping a latte in Wellington should know that.

“There was no forethought and no planning at all by NZTA (New Zealand Transport Agency) or the government.”

Wairarapa’s Labour candidate, Kieran McAnulty, said it was also an issue of resilience.

“It wasn’t long ago snow closed the Rimutaka and Manawatu access roads, and that demonstrated the element of vulnerability we have here.

“The gorge needs to be made a priority, but it’s been completely overlooked.”

For businesses in towns like Woodville, their turnover is linked to people travelling through the town.

A support package similar to what happened in Kaikoura should be looked at, he said.

“It was a prime opportunity for the MP to show he’s got some influence in government, and he failed miserably.

“It’s not just Woodville . . . there’s Pukaha Mount Bruce and the Tui Brewery who rely heavily on tourism.”

Other routes provide access but tourists wouldn’t bother unless they were user-friendly, he said.

Mr McAnulty has been to Woodville to talk to business owners, and said they were “screaming out” for help.

He said it was a “fool’s game” for candidates to pretend to be experts in areas of engineering, and suggested giving NZTA the resources and funding to do their job.

John Hart, Wairarapa’s Green Party candidate, said the situation was tricky because there weren’t a lot of options.

“Councillors up there seem to think the Saddle Rd was probably the only viable medium-term option, but that has its own challenges with gradients and corners.

“I don’t know that there is a good option.”

Situations like this showed just how vulnerable Wairarapa was to being cut off, he said.

“It shows how vulnerable we are, that if the hill gets cut off to Wellington and the gorge gets cut off, we can be isolated from Wellington or the rest of the North Island.”

He said having more Civil Defence infrastructure in Wairarapa would help the region cope better if it was to be isolated for a period of time.

Wairarapa MP Alastair Scott (National) said the Saddle Rd needed to be upgraded “with urgency”.

Roads from Hawke’s Bay to Woodville were hugely improved, and it was time for the same to happen between Woodville and Palmerston North, he said.

“The money is there now to improve Palmerston North to Woodville, we just need to get it right and do things properly.

“We want to see the same high quality of roads on both sides of Dannevirke.”

Improved communication from NZTA would also be helpful, he said.

“People are asking me questions which they shouldn’t have to . . . but I think the NZTA website and information has improved a lot recently.”