20 Jul 2017

Residents demand answers over months-long gorge closure

8:23 am on 20 July 2017

Hundreds of angry people packed out two public meetings last night to demand a solution to the woes caused by the Manawatu Gorge Road closure.

Hundreds of people attended the public meeting in Ashurst.

The town meeting in Ashhurst in Manawatu was standing room only. Photo: RNZ / Jacob McSweeney

The meetings were organised in Ashhurst and Woodville by the Transport Agency after slips closed the road indefinitely in April.

No work will be done in the gorge for now with engineers fearing a large portion of the hillside is on the move and could come down at any time.

Since then the majority of traffic has been taking the Saddle Road, which leads through Ashhurst, the only alternative for travel between the two towns being the Pahiatua Track.

That has led to a loss of business in Woodville, while in Ashhurst huge trucks driving down small suburban streets have raised safety concerns.

The other issue is the Saddle Road itself, which is pockmarked and curving, does not handle bad weather well and has temporary speed limits imposed in several places.

It was standing room only in the Village Valley Centre in Ashhurst as residents came to get answers about the gorge's closure.

Rounds of applause followed each speaker before the Transport Agency's Ross I'Anson was allowed to answer.

Resident Roslyn Young said something needed to be done before someone was killed.

"We need some kind of thing like a speed camera or speed bumps down Salisbury Street.

"The traffic's actually getting out of hand when it comes to speed. We have many young families and kiddies and all sorts that one day will get knocked over."

Ms Young said the town was not made to have State Highway-level traffic coming through it.

Many residents repeated the sentiment that they felt they had lost their quaint little town.

Anthony Willums asked who would be liable for damage to properties caused by the intense vibrations when trucks come through.

"Obviously there's community concerns, there's safety concerns et cetera," he said.

"What we're noticing is the vibration that's coming through the ground and through the house.

"Seriously, it's like a mini-earthquake every time it hits.

"It's a concern because I've noticed the deck has moved and also part of a concrete pad has shifted. We've spoken to people on Salisbury Street, they've noticed all kinds of different changes.

"The road is not designed for it."

Harley Betts is a father of two young children who he said he now has to be very careful about where they play.

"We don't let them go down Salisbury Street just because it's too dangerous.

"We are very careful about letting them go down the side streets. We tell them to stick to the footpaths which isn't ideal on its own anyway and we definitely don't let them play outside the gate."

The Transport Agency said it was working on ways to set up a short-term bypass of Ashhurst and better traffic management.

Lack of traffic hurting Woodville businesses

Hundreds of people attended the public meeting in Woodville.

Hundreds of people attended the public meeting in Woodville. Photo: RNZ / Jacob McSweeney

Not enough traffic can also hurt. In Woodville, more than 300 people packed into the town's sports centre.

Many business owners were there and all of them had seen a downturn in customers since the gorge was closed.

Many were frustrated because GPS apps often sent possible visitors on backroads around the town and there was not enough being done to get traffic into Woodville.

Evan Nattrass owns one of the second hand shops in town and said a lot of his customers that would come from places like Palmerston North were now deciding against weekend trips because of the exhausting Saddle Road.

"I've been recording the numbers of people, there's less people coming in the door.

"Often the people coming in are just taking a break [from the] travel. They're often looking rather stressed and harried from coming over the hill. They're not actually interested in looking to buy, they're just walking the tension out of themselves after the hill trip."

Julia Clark said if a problem like the Manawatu Gorge slip closed roads around Auckland or Wellington, there would be an instant fix.

"This has been an ongoing problem with the gorge and no one can be bothered doing anything about it because we are deemed not worthy. That's exactly how a lot of us feel - unworthy of having a decent road system.

"We really haven't got any answers for what we need done. We all know it's going to take a long time. But we just need answers, and that's all we want."

It was not only businesses that were hurting. Robin said he suspected his house had dropped in value by tens of thousands of dollars.

The Transport Agency said it would look at improving the signage so drivers would not miss Woodville.

Mr I'Anson said in the next six months a business case would explore all options for a long-term solution through the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges.

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