Council not backing route without assurances

The proposed South Westland tourist highway road would run right along the Hollyford  Valley....
The proposed South Westland tourist highway road would run right along the Hollyford Valley. Photo by Hollyford Track Guide Walk.
Southland District councillors have decided they do not have enough information to indicate support for a proposed highway linking Haast to Milford Sound via the Hollyford Valley.

In a resolution he said was drafted ''to give councillors something to debate'', council chief executive Dave Adamson recommended the council support the concept in principle, contingent on the backers providing further information, including a business case showing there would be neither short-term nor long-term financial risk to SDC ratepayers.

However, councillors at an activities performance audit committee meeting yesterday decided they could not support the resolution and could not consider supporting it without necessary detailed information.

Mayor Frana Cardno said she was ''extremely nervous'' about giving support to a road - ''half of which could be inherited by the council in 30 years'' - without knowing the full implications of giving her support.

Others echoed that view. Cr Wallace Jack said he was ''struggling to make a decision'', while Cr Paul Duffy said he was not prepared to support the resolution ''until he got answers''.

The highway being proposed by Westland Properties (a council-controlled organisation owned by the Westland District Council) in partnership with an as-yet-unnamed off-shore investor would be between 108km and 138km long, of which almost 80km would be within the Southland district.

Its backers say it would cost about $220 million to build and would be a major tourist route, cutting 335km and four to five hours of travelling time from the journey between Haast and Milford Sound.

The cost of construction and ongoing maintenance would be met from tolls, estimated at $27 million or more annually, depending on toll charges and the number of motorists using the road.

Councillors yesterday were sceptical of the construction estimate and whether tolls would raise enough for construction and maintenance. They were also concerned liability for the road might fall back on the council and therefore burden its ratepayers.

Westland Properties made a presentation to the council in December and had then been asked for further information to support its estimates, Cr Diane Ridley said.

''We wrote them a letter at Christmas ... and we haven't even had the courtesy of a reply,'' she said.

Several councillors asked Mr Adamson whether the construction estimates were feasible. Council assets manager Ian Marshall said the New Zealand Transport Agency had estimated the construction cost would be closer to $500 million.

Cr Stuart Baird asked Mr Adamson what would happen if the proposal gained initial support and moved on to resource consent stage. Mr Adamson said because the council owned the land beneath part of the proposed road, he understood the backers would therefore have to ask the council for permission to construct such a road there.

''But the Government, if it decided this was a nationally significant project, has the power to take that land off us and allow the road to be built. If that happened, the road would become a state highway and we would not be responsible for its maintenance,'' he said.

Mr Adamson had not asked council staff to investigate issues councillors raised in December: ''I could spend up to half a million getting staff to do more research, if that is what councillors want me to do. But there is no evidence this proposal is any further advanced than it was when it was last raised eight to 10 years ago.''

Councillors yesterday tried to formulate a resolution they all were happy with, but voted to defer any decision until further information was received from Westland Properties on specific issues including: environmental and economic impacts, legal status of land on the Westland side of the Hollyford Valley, a guarantee of no financial risk to SDC ratepayers, and interactions with other transport proposals feeding Milford Sound. Mr Adamson said a copy of the resolution would be sent to Westland Properties and the Westland District Council.

- allison.rudd@alliedpress.co.nz

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