Mayor challenges Waka Kotahi on chaotic SH6 closure and weeds

3:35 pm on 7 December 2022
The closure of State Highway 6/Whakatu Drive last month saw long queues of traffic that took hours to navigate.

The closure of State Highway 6/Whakatu Drive last month saw long queues of traffic that took hours to navigate. Photo: Nelson Weekly

Nelson Mayor Nick Smith has grilled Waka Kotahi on the chaotic closure of State Highway 6/Whakatu Drive for resealing last month and weedy roundabouts during the first meeting of the joint regional transport committee in what, at times, felt like a trial by fire for the transport agency's representative.

Waka Kotahi's director for regional relationships for Wellington and the Top of the South, Emma Speight, said the closure of the main link between Nelson and Richmond on 5-6 November was a frustrating and difficult time for drivers.

"What we discovered in the weekend was that the delays were absolutely beyond... what was acceptable for the community."

She added that, while a full closure of the highway over the weekend was the right decision when compared to 3-4 weeks of stop/go traffic management, it was clear the communication regarding the road's closure was insufficient and coordination with local organisations during the closure needed to be stepped up.

However, the admission didn't seem to entirely satisfy Smith.

"To see the mums in tears who thought they were doing a 10-minute trip to the supermarket and didn't get out of traffic for five hours and feeding babies on the side of the road; medical doctors who did not get to the hospital for operations... it was totally unacceptable what occurred that weekend," the mayor said.

"I personally believe that Waka Kotahi owes the Nelson community an apology."

Tasman's deputy mayor Stuart Bryant said it wasn't only Nelson city that was affected with people as far away as Tapawera and Murchison adding hours to their already lengthy journeys into town.

Weeds are growing once again in the region's roundabouts and island medians which Mayor Nick Smith said is damaging the image of Nelson.

Weeds are growing once again in the region's roundabouts and island medians which Mayor Nick Smith said is damaging the image of Nelson. Photo: Nelson Weekly

"It made for extremely long days," he said. "It certainly needs to be done better next time."

Speight said she was "more than happy" to apologise.

"We're sorry that people were impacted in that way. That is certainly not what we set out to do."

Now the ordeal was in the past, Speight hoped residents would appreciate the work that was done.

"I do hope people are able to enjoy the fact they have now a road that is fit for use."

State Highway 6/Whakatu Drive shouldn't need to be resealed again for about 10 years.

As for the issue of the region's state-managed roundabouts and median islands growing weeds, Speight said stricter safety regulations had made it more difficult for workers to maintain the vegetation.

"The traffic management and safety requirements for our workers are absolutely important."

She added that weed maintenance was not an urgent priority for the agency and that maintenance was being performed after longer intervals due to it now being less cost-effective.

"The aesthetic state of those roundabouts is not a safety risk for the travelling public, and so we can't prioritise that over other projects that may have a greater safety risk for the public."

However, Smith said the issue wasn't just an aesthetic issue and was damaging Nelson's reputation as a tourist centre and did in fact impact driver safety.

"We've had our guts kicked out of us for two years, we're trying to get back into business. The first thing [you see when] you drive out of Nelson Airport as a new visitor arriving into the region are weeds that are taller than me now," he said.

"I don't accept that it's a non-safety risk when I can't see across to the traffic in the other lane coming in the other direction."

Smith also raised concern about the fire risk that large, dry weeds could pose.

Speight confirmed that Waka Kotahi has begun preliminary investigations into hard (concrete) and soft (landscaping) options to address the problem and reduce ongoing upkeep costs.

Nelson councillor Mel Courtney said concrete would be an unpopular option with Nelsonians while Tasman councillor Jo Ellis suggested that local art be incorporated into the concrete if that is the decided solution.

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A decision on the weeds, which are a nationwide problem for Waka Kotahi, will be made in the New Year.

Speight, was however, able to give a positive update on the State Highway 6 closure through the Whangamoa Saddle.

"We're seeing some really great progress," she said. "The teams are working day and night."

The road is still "very much" on track to fully reopen on 18 December, though she added that the agency is keeping an eye on an incoming weather system that's due to hit the region midway through the week.

"That's a big risk for us... but otherwise we're currently tracking to have it fully open then."

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air