The NZ Transport Agency has announced that the Manawatu Gorge will remain closed until mid-year to enable crews to complete a thorough job of safely securing and clearing the massive slip site.
NZTA Palmerston North state highways manager David McGonigal says that despite outstanding progress from the hard-working crews on the slope, significantly more work is needed to ensure that the hillside is stable and safe before it can be re-opened.
“The sheer size and complexity of the job requires more time, and our best estimate for the gorge to reopen is midway through this year.”
Mr McGonigal says the gorge is a crucial transport lifeline, and the NZTA shares the public’s disappointment that reopening the State Highway 3 route is taking longer than originally hoped.
“We needed to get stuck in and get the job well underway before we could form a clearer picture of when the gorge would be safe and ready to reopen. Despite a truly phenomenal effort from the team up there on top of the slope, we now know for certain that it’s going to take more time than we had initially hoped.
“It’s a case of man versus Mother Nature, and while the battle is finally swinging our way, it will take time and tenacity to win it.
“One of the complicating factors is damage to the bridges and road, and we have to wait until the slip is cleared before we can properly assess the extent of that damage and what we need to do to fix it.
“We’ve also hit a lot of rock, which takes a lot of time and effort to break up and clear. However, it’s also a promising sign, because the more rock we find on the slope, the more stable it’s likely to remain.
“We appreciate that every day the gorge is closed is a huge headache for the region, but it’s important we do the job well, keep our workers safe, and make sure the road is safe and secure for all road users.”
Mr McGonigal says the NZTA is benching from the top of the slope down until the slope is sufficiently stable. The NZTA will then clear the remainder of the slip debris and undertake repair work to the road and bridges. Once this work is completed the gorge will be safe and ready to reopen. Three benches have now been completed and work is underway on the fourth.
“The scale of this job is just remarkable, and I want to recognise the Higgins crew up there on the slope. They are putting in a truly Herculean effort to reconnect the region. The project is steadily taking shape, and it’s a real relief that there’s now visibly a light at the end of the tunnel.
“While we appreciate people will be dismayed to wait a few more months, we’re really encouraged that the benching approach is progressing well and the slope has shown increased signs of stability.
“No slip in New Zealand’s modern history has had such an enormous impact and affected so many people. Like everyone else in the region, we’re chomping at the bit to get it open.
Mr McGonigal says that the completion of benching in coming weeks will be a key milestone that will provide the NZTA with greater clarity on when the gorge can be reopened.
“We want to give our utmost thanks to everyone who has had their lives and livelihoods disrupted by this closure – the business owners in Woodville, the residents of Ashhurt, the truckies and bus drivers, and the thousands of other motorists who rely on this route every day. It’s not easy to take it in your stride when your business, community and family are being personally affected, and people have been so incredibly patient and understanding under the circumstances.
“We’re also eager to get the gorge open so we can get started on a significant overhaul of the alternative routes to make sure they’re well and truly up to scratch if and when they’re required again.”
Mr McGonigal reiterated the NZTA’s commitment to the ongoing maintenance and safety of the Saddle Road and Pahiatua Track, and thanked motorists for taking care to drive to the conditions and posted speed limits.
For the latest news and in-depth info on the Manawatu Gorge closure, visit the NZTA’s dedicated web page at http://nzta.govt.nz/traffic/current-conditions/highway-info/manawatu-gorge.html(external link).