The NZ Transport Agency says reopening the Manawatū Gorge remains a top priority as crews work to restore the lower North Island’s highway network after the weekend’s extraordinary flooding event.
Regional Performance Manager Mark Owen says that while State Highway 1 and State Highway 3 in the west were reopened yesterday, the Transport Agency was determined to get the Manawatū Gorge up and running as soon as it was safe to do so.
Mr Owen says the slips in the Gorge are fairly minor, but it will remain closed until experts are satisfied that the risk of further slips has eased.
“The hillside has been completely saturated, with curtains of water streaming off it, and we need to wait for it to settle down and dry out before we can be confident the slope is safe and stable. We have specialist geotechnical engineers in to assess the slip sites, and they’re in there right now, abseiling on the slip sites to get a closer look.
“Contractors have done a superb job doing running repairs on the Saddle Road and keeping it open through atrocious weather.
“The Saddle Road is currently being upgraded to make it the key backup route for the Gorge, and already those upgrades have proven their worth. The Saddle Road was among the few major roads to remain open throughout the flooding. While it’s been a challenging drive, it provided that vital lifeline we need to keep the East-West connection alive.
The Saddle Road is currently undergoing a $4.5m upgrade, fully funded by the Transport Agency. This follows $5m of upgrades in 2011-12 during the massive Gorge slip.
Mr Owen says the Transport Agency is also working to improve travel conditions across the wider transport network, especially around hardest-hit Whanganui.
He says the Transport Agency was committed to reopening State Highway 4 between Whanganui and Raetihi as soon as possible, particularly to allow emergency access, although he notes this will involve a big effort to remove a large number of slips.
“This has been the worst flood in memory for many people, and now that floodwaters are receding, our crews won’t be letting up until the roads are open and back in good nick. In some areas this may take days, and in other areas it may take much longer, but we’re here to get it done.
“We thank local communities for hanging in there while our crews strive to get them connected as soon as we can.”
He says challenging conditions are widespread across the entire roading network, and urged motorists to keep their wits about them, avoid complacency, and obey all speed limits without exception.
“Just because a highway is open doesn't mean it’s clear sailing. Debris, slips, surface flooding, one-lane restrictions and potholes are widespread, and it is essential people put safety first, drop their speeds and expect the unexpected.
“It is also essential to drive with extra care keep contractors safe while they are working on the roads. Journeys will be slower over the next few days, and we ask that drivers leave extra time up their sleeve as most roads are looking a little worse for wear.”
Mr Owen reminded travellers that more weather challenges remained up Mother Nature’s sleeve.
“We’ve got a cold blast coming over the Lower North Island, so people also need to be vigilant about snow and ice, and drive to the conditions.”
A number of roads remain closed throughout the region or under restrictions, and the Transport Agency urges motorists to check online before travelling. Motorists can try out the Transport Agency’s brand new interactive road map(external link), which clearly displays real time travel data in map format.
“While the worst may be over, there are still highways throughout the region that remain closed, and our crews will continue to work tirelessly to get them back open.”
Mr Owen is urging motorists to turn around if they see a Road Closed sign.
“If the road ahead is closed, do not attempt to continue driving. You will put yourself at risk, and you will invalidate your insurance.”
Mr Owen praised road crews for their superb efforts.
“Over the last few days, contractors have put in a truly inspiring effort to get our communities connected again, and to help keep us safe. They’ve worked in atrocious conditions, and made massive progress. Our hats go off to them – they are the unsung heroes of our transport system.”
For real time travel updates follow @NZTACNI, @NZTAWgtn on twitter, or NZTA on Facebook(external link).
You can also visit our online interactive highways map at www.beta.nzta.govt.nz/traffic(external link) or call 0800 4 HIGHWAYS
For personalised information about driving conditions on their frequently used routes, motorists can check out and sign up to On The Move at www.onthemove.govt.nz.(external link)