Hawke's Bay depends on trade, be it overseas exports, supplying the needs of our domestic markets, bringing in raw materials or attracting visitors. All have a significant transport component and the efficiency of our transport network determines whether we are competitive or not.
In other words if we want to prosper we must have the most efficient and most appropriate transport links.
Some months ago a major slip closed the Manawatu Gorge almost certainly forever. This is not the first time the gorge road has been closed. In 2011 a large slip closed the gorge for 14 months and cost $15.8 million to repair, whilst in 2015 two slips cost more than $800,000 to clear.
The closure imposes a significant cost on the Hawke's Bay economy but this issue seems to have slipped below the radar. To her credit the Tararua District Council mayor Tracy Collis has been pretty vocal - understandably, of course, because the towns of Woodville and Dannevirke have been hit particularly hard.
There are two local alternatives to the Manawatu Gorge: Saddle Rd and the Pahiatua Track. Neither, however, offers the convenience of the now-closed gorge route. Although $8.5m has been budgeted for improvements to Saddle Rd, the fact is larger vehicles such as trucks and buses now take an extra 25 minutes to climb then descend these steep and somewhat difficult routes.
For cars an extra 15 minutes is needed and while that might not seem a lot, when the cost is aggregated for the thousands of vehicles affected the total is in the many millions of dollars.
If we look at the bigger picture it is clear we are very vulnerable. Effectively we have just three highways connecting us to the rest of the country: State Highway 5 to Taupo, the SH2 Rimutaka hill road to Wellington and the Manawatu Gorge. All can be and often are blocked and when this happens we are effectively isolated.
None is a true alternative to the others, although the gorge route offers some versatility, especially for the crucial SH5 Napier-Taupo road. If the Mohaka bridge is put out of commission the Manawatu Gorge offers the only realistic alternative, even though it is hundreds of kilometres further. A major earthquake could knock any one of these routes for a year or more, as happened after the Kaikoura quake nearly a year ago.
The present Government has committed to significant spending on "roads of national significance" including the Waterview Tunnel ($1.4 billion), Transmission Gully out of Wellington ($850m) plus the joining 24km Kapiti Expressway ($630m) which opened last February, the Puhoi to Wellsford toll road, the Waikato Expressway ($790m extra) and the Tauranga Eastern toll road ($455m).
It has been announced during the election campaign that the Napier/Hastings expressway will be widened to four lanes, which will improve local connectivity, and the Manawatu connection has been identified as very important - but there seems to be no specific plan or budget for the gorge option.
Nor is it clear if the other political parties are committed should there be a change of Government.
In reality continuing improvements to Saddle Rd and the Pahiatua Track can only be short-term solutions. These will always be steep, winding and time-consuming and the only acceptable alternative must surely be a level roadway, be it a tunnel or bridge.
It can be done. In 1999 the $25m 500m Otira Gorge Viaduct opened, bypassing a similarly unstable slip-prone cliff face.
This what we need and nothing else is acceptable.
Simon Nixon is the Acting Deputy Mayor of Hastings and a candidate for mayor in the upcoming byelection. Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: [email protected]