Deteriorating roads a worry for NZ

By: Pat Cox, Photography by: Pat Cox


With less budget spend on infrastructure in many smaller regions in NZ, conditions of roads in places such as Northland are deteriorating. Deals on Wheels writer Patrick Cox comments.

Over the last few weeks, journalists and politicians have penned or voiced an opinion on the NZ Transport Agency suspension of a Northland trucking company and their continued lack of response to speeding tickets and maintaining their trucks in a safe mechanical order.

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All that has been written surely has some basis of truth, but it would appear no one has gotten to the root of the problem. As I see it, this is very simple: if the law was not broken in the first place, this would not have made the news.

It’s with some concern that Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones should advocate that these trucks should stay on the road because of the effect it would have on the thousand or so forestry and associated workers.

For a politician to suggest that breaking the law was OK as long as we kept people employed is very scary; the law is there for everyone. If you break rules of the land, there are consequences of which comes down to a fundamental right of all road users—to feel safe when using roads for their normal business.

Those same loggers that Minister Jones is talking about also share the roads with the trucks in question. Would he have blood on his hands if one of these logging trucks took out a logging crew on their way to work? History tells us that this has happened before.

The Minister for Regional Development should look deeper into the problem and try and understand why logging trucks have high maintenance costs, particularly on Northland roads.

State Highway One, or Patch-it Highway as I call it, is a disgrace. Trucks with a maximum of 50-tonne loads are smashing our roads to bits. These roads were built long before all the logging came on-stream and were not designed for this volume of traffic.

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Trucks with a maximum of 50-tonne loads are smashing our roads to bits

This is not the fault of the transport industry or the forest owners. They have paid their Road User charges and rates while the trees were growing. The Christchurch earthquake took huge amounts of funds from the regions for the rebuild, money that was earmarked for other infrastructure.

The Government of the day has chosen not to repay this in the form of refusing to spend money on infrastructure in many other smaller regions in New Zealand. When Northlanders asked for better bridges, their capital-based Southern cousins hopped in their cars, wandered up, and asked why? They would rather have it spent on a better transport system in Auckland.

Marsden Point is one the busiest log ports in the country, so how can we get logs there more efficiently and cut down on the kilometres that our log trucks spend on the Patch-It Highway?

There is a rail line from Whangarei to Otiria in the back of Moerewa, which has been closed now for a few years. There is a rail line from Whangarei to Dargaville also closed for a few years. Both of these railheads are close to major wood producing areas, but as there is no link to the port, they are not used.

Winston Peters has made noise about putting this link through; all the land has been purchased, so what is the hold up? Why is he and his regional development minister not putting their money where their mouths are, or are they just all hot air and continuing to blow hot air in a bid to stay in Government?

Opening these Northland railheads for log transport makes sense to me. It will reduce the number of trucks using State Highway One. The same volume of wood would be moved and our logging trucks would have shorter distances to travel, but they would have to make more trips. This would have an effect on our smaller regional roads that are in dire need of repair and are a mess, playing havoc on log trucks suspension and providing high repairs and maintenance costs.

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The Broadwood Road through the Herekino Gorge to Kaitaia is a disgrace, and I consider it one of the roughest roads in Northland. The road from Kohukohu to Panguru can join the club as well. Ask the question: "Are they safe?" The simple answer is no. You’re sharing the road with rural school buses, general traffic, freight and log trucks.

Shane Jones has an obligation as regional development minister to guarantee the health and safety of all who use these roads, as do all other regions in New Zealand who have to use marginal roads every day getting their children to and from school.

Because of our free market economy, the government will not subsidise local industries. The competitive nature of logs sales to overseas buyers keeps our log price subdued; this has a flow-on effect on how much can be budgeted to building logging roads and associated freight costs.

If freight prices are tight, then this can have an effect on repairs and maintenance, but that is no excuse for continuing to break the law. If your truck is not roadworthy, then off the road it goes. The law is for all not just a select few.

It should be noted that the NZ Transport Agency had grounds for these charges. I understand the same trucking company approximately 18 months ago avoided a head-on collision between a fully loaded logging truck and fuel truck on a forestry road, where the skill of the tanker driver avoided what could have been a very serious accident with the possibility of the death of both drivers and a catastrophic diesel spill.

All vehicles using bush roads must be equipped with a radio telephone and continually update their location when on logging roads but the wood-laden truck did not have this important piece of safety equipment.

In my opinion, the NZ Transport Agency is fully justified in their action and Government ministers should not step outside their jurisdiction and let the law be applied to all.

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