By Beckie Wilson
It’s been shut 22 times in the last five years, totalling 338 days, and now the Manawatu Gorge may never reopen.
Yesterday, it was announced that massive slips and ongoing problems with an unsteady hillside mean the road through the gorge has been closed indefinitely.
It’s been a nightmare for Woodville businesses, with politicians saying something will have to be done for them.
But with no end in sight – and no date for reopening – questions will also have to be asked about the longterm viability of the main route for those travelling to and from Palmerston North to Wairarapa.
Transport Minister Simon Bridges said yesterday that sections of the hill and the slip continued to move at a concerning speed, deeming it unsafe even for engineers and workers.
“I can’t tell you today or give you any certainty of when this road will reopen but we will be working very hard as quickly as we can to understand that,” he said.
NZTA highway manager Ross I’Anson said geotechnical assessments confirmed that the entire hillside was moving, and the rate of that movement was accelerating.
“That’s an indication that a slip as large or larger than the 2011 slip which closed the road for 14 months could come down at any time.”
NZTA is investing $8.5mil into upgrading the Saddle Rd which is struggling to cope with the re-routed traffic.
While this closure comes as frustration for those who travelled the route daily, the news is the “worst outcome” for business owners in Woodville.
Wairarapa MP Alastair Scott was at the gorge yesterday before visiting business owners in the township.
The traffic is now taking the bypass, skipping Woodville, “which is effecting a lot of retailers and cafes, and a touristy destination shop”.
Offering the businesses relief was high on his priority list, he said.
“For Woodville, there might be a package for provisional tax delays . . . this year’s income is going to be less for these people so this maybe something we can offer that will postpone the [payments].”
He will propose this to the minister of economic development and minister of revenue.
“Woodville is fairly matter of fact and resilient — they have seen the gorge close over a long period of time previously.
“There is some stress around the cash flow of their businesses . . . that’s my immediate concern.”
While there were contractors already working on Saddle Rd, there needed to be more investment on it to make it a “decent route”, he said.
“It’s not up to scratch and it’s not designed for big trucks. We are going to have more heavy trucks coming across with spring and milking – already 18 to 20 per cent of the traffic is heavy.”
Long-term decisions needed to be made on the future of the Gorge Rd, and whether Saddle Rd and the Pahiatua Track needed to be made the main routes across to Palmerston North, Mr Scott said.
Tararua District Mayor Tracey Collis spoke to a handful of Woodville businesses yesterday about the closure, which was a “difficult piece of news”.
“There was a real feeling of shock and it is the worst outcome,” she said.
“The businesses have experienced a lot of pain during the last [closure] and those memories flood back,” she said.
The community met recently to discuss what they could do in the short term and the long term, such as promotions to draw people into the town.
The Woodville Library was also planning to host a cash flow seminar with the businesses, Mrs Collis said.
Wairarapa Chamber of Commerce general manager Catherine Rossiter-Stead said there would be many Wairarapa businesses also affected by the indefinite closure.
“People have been frustrated with the closure, the pressure just travelling from A to B and getting to places on time, or moving product whether it be a truck or service provider,” she said.
“One of the businesses that is a [chamber] member has a warehouse in Palmerston North and they make at least three trips a day, and now this reduces the access to an important facility for them.”
The Chamber has about 200 business members in the region from Pahiatua to Featherston.
It was important that the Chamber understood the challenges of the gorge closures on its members, she said.
* Road traffic during the closure of the road through the Manawatu Gorge shows 5728 vehicles travelling the Saddle Rd each day, with 1700 of those choosing to bypass Woodville – approximately a 30 per cent drop.
* The normal average daily traffic for the Manawatu Gorge is 7220 vehicles a day. Based on the road traffic counts there is a variance of 1492, which means people are either not travelling or are using the Pahiatua Track.