Opinion: The state of State Highway 1

What is it with people and places? Why are we always rushing hither and thither, from point A to points B, C and D? Why aren’t we happy to stay where we are?

A nation’s economic prosperity depends on its transport links and their ability to get people and goods to their destinations as quickly and effectively as possible. That capacity for freedom of travel, when and where it suits, is also seen as a cornerstone of a democratic and developed society like ours.

New Zealand does not have the population and number of vehicles necessary for the kind of extensive motorway networks which have been built throughout parts of Europe, the United Kingdom and North America. We should be grateful for that.

However, even in such a small country, there are some significant traffic bottlenecks which are almost as busy as the worst highways overseas, and which require continuous design changes and re-engineering to keep up with traffic volumes and rush hours.

The South is, thankfully, largely free of the traffic jams of Auckland and Wellington. But, as any southerner who has driven to Christchurch in recent years will tell you, it is not a pleasant experience arriving or departing from there.

The problem for the South Island’s biggest city has become worse as a result of the earthquakes, which forced many thousands of people out of what we normally think of as Christchurch and into the Selwyn and Waimakariri districts to the south and north respectively.

Selwyn’s thriving Rolleston and Waimakariri’s booming Kaiapoi and Rangiora have many things going for them, but traffic flow has not been one of them, due unfortunately to their locations as “gateways” on either side of the city.

The speed of population growth in these areas has been breathtaking. Waimakariri’s population rose 19% to 59,502 between the 2013 and 2018 censuses, while the number of Selwyn residents rocketed 35.8% from 44,595 residents to 60,561, making the district the second fastest growing behind the Queenstown-Lakes district.

Rolleston — dubbed “town of the future” in the early 1970s by Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk, a description which for many years was something of a joke — now has 19,000 residents and is growing so fast school zones are being mapped out on roads yet to be built.

Good news, then, that two major new motorways aimed at relieving congestion along State Highway 1 on both sides of Christchurch are nearing completion. It is not only welcome news for Selwyn and Waimakariri residents, and people living in Christchurch, but also for all South Islanders who regularly make the long trip north along State Highway 1.

The Northern Corridor four-lane motorway is scheduled for opening in the middle of the year. It has had some budget issues — the latest cost is expected to be $290million, $50million more than originally thought.

The $195million stage two of the Christchurch Southern Motorway should also open around mid-year and the NZ Transport Agency promises it will cut in half the 30-minute drive from the central city to Rolleston.

As the number of vehicles in New Zealand continues rising, increasing pressure is placed on our roading system, particularly the intensively used highways.

In just three years, the total number of vehicles in the national fleet rose by about 800,000, from 3.5million in 2015 to 4.3million in 2018. More than 90% of those are light vehicles — cars, vans, utes, four-wheel drives, SUVs, buses and campervans.

Frequent users of State Highway 1 between Invercargill, Dunedin and Christchurch will have noticed many improvements in the past decade or so, especially better alignments of corners and, between Timaru and Christchurch, regular passing lanes.

However, the dramatic closure of the highway at Rangitata after flooding a month ago was a reminder of both how fragile the main road link between Christchurch and the southern cities remains and of the impacts of splitting the island in two.

For Christchurch folk and travellers from the South, the removal of tens of thousands of irritating road cones and speed restrictions around the new roads cannot come soon enough.

 

 

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