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Grave doubts over whether State Highway 43 upgrade will ever happen
Opinion: Joshua Morgan is probably spinning in his grave right now.
The legendary surveyor’s final resting place is atop a small bush-clad hill that overlooks the road he plotted through some of the North Island’s most isolated and rugged countryside – the road now officially SH43 but better known as the Forgotten World Highway.
These days lots of people know the story of Joshua Morgan, about how the Government convinced him to come out of retirement to survey the route for an eastern road linking Stratford in Taranaki with Taumarunui 150km away in King Country.
By early 1893 the surveyors had reached Tangarakau River at about the halfway point. Plotting a route through this obstacle was a massive task, but Morgan did it. The road tracks along the river’s northern side until reaching a very steep gorge, then it crosses a bridge to the southern bank and snakes its way north until it reaches more open country.
But Joshua Morgan never saw the road completed. In late February 1893 he developed severe stomach cramps – probably peritonitis – and died in terrible pain eight days later. He was buried where he died, on that small hill overlooking the bridge that crosses into the gorge.
When the road was opened two years later it was totally unsealed and at times very muddy, which almost immediately began to prompt complaints to the Government over frustrations that badly-needed upgrading work was constantly being deferred. You can imagine the amusement then, when in 1902 the Prime Minister of the time was tipped out of his carriage and into the mud when its wheels hit a hole in the road.
Today, 117 years later, you can guarantee there are plenty of political leaders in Taranaki and King Country who would probably like something similar to happen again – because upgrading work continues to be deferred.
This is particularly the case with the 12km section through Tangarakau Gorge, which has never been sealed.
It’s a disgraceful piece of road that is a physical barrier to further development of the tourist potential of the Forgotten World Highway and Taranaki, not the least because most car rental companies forbid their clients from driving on unsealed roads.
Tragically, any on-board satellite navigation system will advise tourists that the shortest route between the very popular and now-overcrowded Tongariro Crossing and the increasingly popular Pouakai Crossing, is SH43. But because of that 12km piece of unsealed road, tourists in rental cars aren’t allowed to use it, and travellers in camper vans may have read social media and are too scared to use it.
And yet latest studies forecast that if key transport improvements were made to Taranaki’s roading links – including sealing the gorge road – then tourism benefits to Taranaki region could amount to as much as $40 million.
Over the years there have been numerous investigations into the awful state of SH43. The last was in 2017 when a Taranaki Regional Council-funded report concluded that the Forgotten World Highway desperately needs improvements, including its entire distance being sealed.
Did anyone take notice of that? Yes and no. In April last year the new Minister for Regional Development, Shane Jones, swept into the region and announced that up to $400,000 of the Government’s flash Provincial Growth Fund was to be spent on – yet another report on the issue.
He promised the report will be completed by the middle of this year, and he added all this will occur ahead of a possible multi-million upgrade of the highway.
Oh, really? What’s happened so far is that the New Zealand Transport Agency has engaged a consultancy called Urban Connection Ltd to help develop a single stage business case that would outline potential improvements to the safety and reliability of SH43.
Despite the fact that at a stakeholders meeting on early February, Taranaki representatives told the NZTA and its consultants that the key to any such improvements is the sealing of the Tangarakau Gorge, the investigation has gone much further than that.
Instead, it has used the Provincial Growth Fund money to widen the business case investigation so it now includes such ideas as installing solar-powered lighting in the Moki Tunnel ($600,000), ensuring there is mobile phone coverage through the Forgotten World Highway’s entire distance ($1.4m), and replacing an old one-lane bridge near Beaconsfield Rd on the outskirts of Stratford ($3.2m).
At the same time, the consultants estimate the cost of sealing the Tangarakau Gorge to 5 metre width would be $12 million.
All this has annoyed both the Taranaki Regional Transport Committee and the region’s Mayoral Forum, who are concerned that what should have been an exercise designed to quickly develop a business case for sealing the Tangarakau Gorge, has instead been fudged into a wider NZTA study into what’s needed for the Forgotten World Highway in its entirety – and which will probably never happen.
Both organisations are also annoyed that it is now 12 months since Jones made his announcement, and that the final report is still not released. It is understood however that it will be released within days, and that the public will be given three weeks to give its opinion on its contents and recommendations.
So what will happen then? Will the report and its recommendations allow access to the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund to finally seal that awful stretch of SH43 that remains unsealed 126 years after it was formed? And will Joshua Morgan be able to finally rest in peace?