23 Feb 2024

Taking the long way to Northland with SH1 closure

From Nine To Noon, 9:25 am on 23 February 2024
Aerial Photo of the closure of Brynderwyn Hill state highway 1

Photo: Nick Monro

A group representing New Zealand trucking firms is calling for long-term transport planning to prevent a repeat of the upcoming - and, they say, entirely predictable - closure of State Highway 1 over the Brynderwyns. 

The roughly 10km stretch of highway will close from Monday for nine weeks, excluding Easter, to allow major slip repairs to be carried out before the road risks failing entirely. 

Motorists will have a choice of three detour routes, adding between 20km to 70km to the journey between Auckland and Whangārei. 

Justin Tighe-Umbers, chief executive of the National Road Carriers Association, told Nine to Noon the closure was enormously frustrating for truckies. 

"A lot of them have been operating for 20, 30 years, and they've been calling for this to be addressed for those 20 or 30 years. This is the world's most predictable problem. We did nothing about it and we're now, at the worst possible moment, right where we shouldn't be, having to shut a main arterial." 

What New Zealand needed was to adopt 50-year road transport planning, instead of trying to shore up broken roads and pursuing short-term solutions. 

Tighe-Umbers said many truckies did the run from Auckland to Northland and back in a day. However, for some - especially those required to take the longest detour around the west coast - that would no longer be possible.  Having to add an overnight stay would significantly increase time and costs, he said.  

Tighe-Umbers said a forestry operator south of the Brynderwyns, whose logs had to be delivered to Northport, had told him they would not fell any trees for the next nine weeks.  

A dairy operator who had to cross the Brynderwyns each day expected to rack up an extra $150,000 in costs, which he could not pass on. 

"I've been at a number of meetings in the Far North and Whangārei with our members - the majority of them are small business owners, they've got their own money tied up heavily in their businesses. They've taken an absolute battering in Northland over the three years of pandemic only to come out of that and have the cyclone and flooding. 

Cyclone Gabrielle exacerbated slips on State Highway 1 over the Brynderwyns, resulting in road closure for repairs.

Photo: NZTA / Waka Kotahi

"So when they're faced with this closure, your heart goes out to them because you can just see the fear in their eyes. Nine weeks, that's a hell of a long time.

"They usually can't pass on the extra costs because they're tied into a contract to deliver goods at a particular rate, or the market simply won't bear the extra transport costs." 

Riki Kinnaird, co-owner of Russell's Duke of Marlborough Hotel, said transport operators would be hit by higher costs - but at least they still had revenue coming in. 

If people stopped coming to Northland that meant no income for hospitality businesses, he said. 

Kinnaird told Nine to Noon the hotel, and the Bay of Islands generally, had a "stonking" February. 

The hotel was still looking good for March thanks to weddings, but elsewhere bookings were unusually light for March through to May. 

Part of that was due to a mistaken belief that Northland was closed, so people had booked holidays elsewhere. 

"We were just starting to get a rhythm. This was the first summer post-Covid and cyclone that started to feel good. February was stonking up here, with great weather, lots of people and cruise ships."  

Kinnaird believed it was largely a problem of communication.  

He said the Waipū detour added roughly 20 minutes to the journey north - which was similar to the time saved by the new Pūhoi motorway extension, making the overall journey time unchanged.

"So from a timing perspective, it's just a different route. We believe the problem we face is a communication challenge. Nothing's changed up here, it's a beautiful time of year - you just have to go left or right." 

Kinnaird said a new advertising campaign by NZTA and the regional tourism organisation promoting the detours would help, but it was too late for people who had already planned their holidays. 

"The message is not articulated as clearly as it should be, but there is energy now. We've lost time but if we can keep the messaging going and really push hard for the next few months, hopefully we can attract some of the people we've lost or the late decision makers. But it should have been months and months ago." 

The Cove Road detour, via Waipū and the scenic east coast, is suitable for light traffic only. Trucks with trailers are banned because of a hairpin bend where large trucks got stuck last time the Brynderwyns were closed. 

Another detour, west of the Brynderwyns via Paparoa-Oakleigh Road, is suitable for light traffic and most trucks. 

The heaviest trucks will have to drive an extra 70km around the west coast on State Highways 12 and 14. 

Even with the repairs, NZTA estimated SH1 over the Brynderwyns was only likely to last another five to seven years. 

The coalition government has pledged to prioritise a four-lane alternative route, most likely around the west of the Brynderwyns, but no timeline or budget has been announced as yet.