The NZ Transport Agency is close to beginning work on the pivotal fifth bench as State Highway 3 through the Manawatu Gorge approaches an unprecedented six months of closure.
NZTA state highways manager David McGonigal says that with Saturday marking six months since the first slip came down, good weather is continuing to bode well for the prospect of the NZTA beginning work on the fifth bench shortly.
"A six month anniversary of this kind of event is not a milestone you celebrate, but it really does shed some perspective on the sheer scale of what we're up against."
Mr McGonigal says it has been a week of cracking progress thanks to excellent weather.
"We've got crews working hard out on the fourth bench, and we expect to get started on the fifth bench in the next week or so. The weather's been cooperating, our grass seed is taking hold and I'm confident that we're on track and that good progress will continue."
Mr McGonigal says the Higgins crews have reached the final level for Bench #4 on the Ashhurst end, and grading and bulldozing are now underway. Once this work is finished, the crews will get going on a similar operation at the Woodville end.
"If the weather continues to behave itself, we'll be getting started on the fifth bench next week, and that's a pivotal point.
"Once the fifth bench is complete, we'll be in a position to carry out a geotechnical assessment of the stability of the slope and decide how to proceed with the final push."
Mr McGonigal says the grass is growing well on the first bench, and half of the edge of Bench 2 has been hydroseeded (sprayed with seed).
"The hydroseeded areas are settling well into cracks within the batters (bench edges), and we expect to see strong growth over the coming weeks. This may seem a small thing, but successful hydroseeding will help jump-start the regeneration of plant life on the slope-an important step towards repairing the environment."
Mr McGonigal says despite solid progress, solid rock on the hillside is continuing to pose its own challenges.
"We're still hitting some tough areas of hard greywacke, which is doing its best to slow us down. Luckily, the rock breaker is still on the job, so the crew just keeps powering through."
Mr McGonigal says maintenance crews remain busy on the detour routes, with a heightened work programme in place.
"We're doing as much upgrade work as possible while still keeping these roads open, and any decisions on future upgrades will have to happen once we have re-opened the gorge."
On a lighter note, Mr McGonigal noted the Woodville community will be holding a Gorge-ous Ball at the Woodville Racecourse on Saturday 25 February. The event is being organised by Kumeroa Hopelands School committee and will serve as a fundraiser for both the school and the Woodville Fire Brigade. $35. Tickets are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr McGonigal said the ball was a heart-warming reflection of the strong spirit the affected local communities have maintained despite the ongoing disruption of the gorge closure.
All Manawatu Gorge updates and media releases, plus more photographs and diagrams, are on the NZTA's dedicated Manawatu Gorge web page.(external link)