Disaster shows the value of trucks and roads

In News7 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineJune 4, 2021

Once again, this week we saw the lengths truck drivers will go to, to get essential goods where they need to go.

Canterbury got to be the region of two halves when flooding compromised the Ashburton River-Hakatere Bridge, closing off State Highway 1 at Ashburton on Tuesday. The route was opened partially on Wednesday and mostly on Thursday, with restrictions. Overweight permitted trucks were not allowed on the bridge on Thursday.

The bridge was closed due to a slump at one pier and it is likely heavy vehicles will be impacted for at least a week while a repair strategy is developed.

RNZ spoke to a truck driver who had taken the very long route from Dunedin to Christchurch via the mountainous Haast Pass and West Coast, on Tuesday night, and typically humble he said “well we just have to get the job done”.

Truck drivers get a lot of grief from people who don‘t understand their vital contribution to our quality of life and the New Zealand economy, but they are the first people to line up to help when there is a disaster.

They are problem solvers and just quietly deliver what needs to be delivered, door-to-door.

The Road Transport Forum‘s role in an adverse event like this is to support the three associations working locally – Road Transport Association New Zealand, National Road Carriers, and NZ Trucking Association – to remove unnecessary barriers and co-ordinate media and requests for help.

It is not a simple case for heavy vehicles of driving an alternative route. They need to have the right permits and the road needs to be suitable. I know RTANZ did a lot of work with Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency on suitable alternative routes for heavy transport and I‘d like to thank all the associations for their work for their members.

The roads have fared badly, but so has rail, and with the lines washed out of commission for some time, road freight is even more essential.

The Government needs to look long and hard at New Zealand‘s road infrastructure and understand its value to the economy and to ensuring everyday life goes on for all New Zealanders. Unfortunately, it takes a disaster for the lights to go on in that regard. We have seen with the Covid-19 pandemic a whole new understanding of where things come from, via the supply chain, and who delivers them.

This morning the Government has made announcements on the fate of the transport projects in the New Zealand Upgrade Programme, impacted by Covid-19 apparently. The 24km highway from Otaki to north of Levin, costing more than $817 million, will be built as planned. Wellington‘s Melling Interchange will go ahead at a higher cost, it is now estimated to cost $420 million, having been costed at $258 million a year ago.

This is great news, but unfortunately the Mill Road highway project in Auckland will not go ahead.

Using a 2040 projection of carbon emissions based on current CO2 emissions to justify killing Mill Road is disingenuous and suggests the Government has no confidence in decarbonising the private vehicle fleet. This will reduce public confidence in the Government‘s stated aims in vehicle decarbonising.

Road and public transport should be equal priorities; not one over another.

And we were disappointed to see $685 million tagged for a new Auckland Harbour Bridge that will be for walking and cycling only. We are keen to see the cost-benefit analysis of this spend. It will clearly cost more than this and we think such a huge spend should go towards a new harbour crossing that is for all forms of transport, including the vital freight trucks.

Today‘s announcement chucks some crumbs towards the future in terms of a Waitemata Harbour crossing (possibly a tunnel) for vehicles. It is good to hear public transport mentioned, as it will take vehicles off the road. However, we needed stronger long-term assurances and a real plan for freight movement in New Zealand into the future.

The announcement on a walking and cycling Auckland Harbour Bridge is really putting the cart before the horse. Mass transit and freight should be the priority for transport investment, not bikes and walking which could be accommodated by smart use of existing infrastructure.

New Zealand‘s road network is in serious decline. Go to any region and people will tell you how bad the roads are and that maintenance has been ignored for years. As the bills ramp up to try and keep the roads we have got, there also needs to be money for new and better roads. This is why we cannot understand money being taken from road funding and given to rail.

There will now be a massive bill in Canterbury to repair the network of roads washed out and severely damaged in this weather event. That work has to be done to ensure the flow of primary products off our farms and to our export markets, as well as to cost effectively move all the goods for the domestic market.

Instead of running down the value of roads in New Zealand, we would like to see the Government recognise their importance to any modern economy, most particularly one that relies heavily on trade.

By Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum