The NZTA will be taking over control of the Saddle Road and Pahiatua Track as the closure of the Manawatu Gorge looks set to continue for up to two months.
NZTA regional state highways manager David McGonigal says that after receiving the latest geological assessment indicating the closure is expected to continue for up to two months longer, NZTA road crews have assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the detour routes. The detours had previously been maintained by council contractors based on a funding agreement with the NZTA.
Mr McGonigal says by temporarily taking over the alternative routes, the NZTA’s road crews will help to ensure the alternative routes remain safe and viable. The decision follows a meeting last Friday between the NZTA and the Mayors and Chief Executives of Tararua District Council, Manawatu District Council, Palmerston North City Council and the Chairman and Chief Executive of Horizons Regional Council to discuss the issues that the closure is causing.
Mr McGonigal said the NZTA road crews were on call 24/7 and would be able to carry out repairs at off-peak times such as evenings to limit disruption to motorists. Repairs would be temporary to ensure roadworks would not significantly impede traffic flow, and permanent repairs would be made once the gorge reopens and traffic settles.
“We appreciate that the alternative routes have taken a lot of punishment, and given the length of the closure it’s appropriate that we fully assume the costs and organisation of the upkeep of these roads. By taking over these routes we’ll be in a good position to ensure they can handle the large volumes of traffic they’re facing, and where possible to carry out repairs and upgrades during the night.”
“We’re hugely grateful to the councils for providing these detour routes, and it’s only fair that we do what we can ensure these alternative routes are up to the task of carrying state highway traffic volumes while the gorge is closed.”
Mr McGonigal says that while the scale of the slip looks set to surpass the slips of 2004, the gorge is expected to remain viable long-term. The NZTA has agreed the detour routes needed more TLC to help them handle the increase of traffic from around 700 vehicles per day to around 6000.
“Closures of this extent only happen around once in a decade, but when they do happen they cause real disruption. Our priority is twofold: getting the highway reopened as soon as it’s safe to do so, and keeping the alternative routes well maintained and safe in the meantime.”
“We appreciate that people are frustrated about the length of this closure. We need to bring much more unstable material down from high up on the slope and we’ll be hoping for some more rain to help bring it down.”
Mr McGonigal says the ongoing slips have occurred at the location of a much bigger ancient landslide. The area where the slip has occurred is made up of silty, sandy gravel with large boulders mixed with areas of greywacke rock, resulting in an unstable hillside that needs to shed more material before it stabilises.
Mr McGonigal says the NZTA has employed five different companies, including geological specialists, to help the NZTA find solutions to stop the hillside moving. Until it does, there is no quick fix to the problem.
“We’re up against the forces of nature here, and to some extent we have to wear it on the chin, and that’s not easy to accept when you’ve got an important highway that’s shut.”
“This is one of the longest and most frustrating closures on record and we’re well aware that it’s very disruptive for motorists and local communities. We want to thank them for being so incredibly patient. We’d love to say for sure when it’s going to open, but until we know that, we’re committed to doing everything we can to ease the pain.”
Mr McGonigal said the NZTA would also improve signage and traffic management around Ashhurst and Woodville to improve traffic flow and reduce rat-running.
Mr McGonigal encouraged motorists locals to contact its contractors with reports of damage to the detour routes to enable its road crews to act promptly. Defects can be reported to Higgins 24 hours a day/7 on 06 357 1026, and other queries can be directed to the NZTA on email@example.com or 06 953 6396.
The NZTA advises motorists that the detour routes take on average 15-20 minutes longer than SH3 through the gorge.