Political expediency featured in the death of an alternative bridge plan over the Kawarau River, Transport Minister Simon Bridges admits.
He told a Queenstown lobby group that getting “runs on the board” before the 2017 election was a factor in allowing a new $25 million bridge in Frankton to be built in the planned location.
However, he raised the group’s hopes by telling them he wanted to consider the matter further.
Those hopes - to replace the ageing one-lane Kawarau Falls Bridge on State Highway 6 with one about 2km downstream - have now been dashed.
Bridges told the group on Tuesday the $25m replacement would “definitely go ahead” immediately downstream of the existing bridge.
Construction is set to start late this year.
Group member Kirsty Sharpe says the decision sounds the death-knell of their year-long campaign.
Another member, Hudson Turnbull, says the district’s residents will suffer, and he is disappointed by the New Zealand Transport Agency’s “misinformation and skullduggery” in the debate.
The group wanted the bridge built downstream to link up with the future eastern arterial road, relieving congestion in Frankton. In April it persuaded Queenstown’s council to ask the agency to review its choice of site.
When the agency announced in June it was sticking to its original plan, the group took its fight to the minister.
During a July 29 conference call, Bridges tells seven group members: “The project’s very much about runs on the board now prior to - if we can be very blunt about it - the 2017 election.”
He urges the group to be pragmatic.
“If you’re getting a roading solution to something, even if it’s not your first best one, I reckon you’re better to take it, and then keep asking for the one that you want.”
Bridges tells Mountain Scene his comments about the project’s political context were a case of “appealing to their pragmatic side”.
“This was a 2014 election commitment by the government. But actually in terms of the NZTA and government’s position, I don’t think it is that pragmatic - the case for the bridge clearly stacks up on the congestion numbers.
“That it’s also an election pledge simply adds to that strong case.”
But Sharpe says Bridges told them he “didn’t doubt” he could ring-fence the project’s $25m funding - raising their hopes it could be delayed to allow further consideration of the alternative site.
“He ended the conversation by saying he’d like to think about this a bit more and he was happy to discuss the matter further.”
Bridges says ring-fencing funding isn’t possible, adding: “If the Kawarau bridge isn’t built, the funding would be reallocated to another project somewhere else in the country that is ready to go.”
He says the group made a good argument for a second Kawarau bridge in the medium to long term.
“My encouragement to them is to continue advocating for the project because the Central Otago region is one of the fastest growth areas in NZ and it has a strong claim to make for further infrastructural investment.”