The construction of Taranaki’s biggest road project — the $280 million Te Ara o Te Ata bypass of Mt Messenger — has been besieged by protesters.
A group of about 20 people have set up a crew camp at the summit of Mt Messenger, on the site of a planned 1.1km cable car that will allow transport of project personnel and machinery to the valley below.
The group, who have traveled from across the North Island to be there, settled down Sunday and want the project to be halted and instead upgrade the existing route along State Highway 3 via Mt Messenger.
They say the new road will destroy native forests and wetlands and blow the budget even more than it already has.
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On Tuesday, protester Robyn Kemp-Martin said she will stay there “as long as we need to.”
“This is our last fight and it feels like the only thing left to do.”
The protesters said they expected more people to join their camp in the coming days.
The occupation is the latest attempt to halt the project, which was first proposed in 2016 when then-Prime Minister John Key said the government would invest up to $105 million for bypasses at Mt Messenger and the Awakino Tunnel.
Several routes were envisioned from there, but the proposed road through the Mangapēpeke Valley was announced in 2017 along with a budget jump to $200 million.
A hearing on the project was held in 2018 and approved later that year. However, farmers Tony and Debbie Pascoe and the Poutama Kaitiaki Charitable Trust have made appeals.
The Pascoes farmland needed for the bypass, while Poutama has so far unsuccessfully claimed to be Mana Whenua – a status held by North Taranaki iwi Ngāti Tama, which also owns land used for the bypass.
Ngāti Tama negotiated his own set of terms to agree to the project, including a $7.7 million payment, training and employment opportunities, and a land swap that took place last week.
Aside from costing two Taranaki Councils and Waka Kotahi more than $900,000 so far, the litigation has delayed construction for more than two years.
It was only earlier this year that the High Court ruled that the consents would be granted. This followed an announcement in May last year that the budget was now $280 million.
Since then, the preparatory work has begun. The construction of the cable car is an important element in getting the project off the ground.
However, the arrival of the protesters has halted the cable car works as they were built inside the construction site.
On Tuesday, a group including representatives from Waka Kotahi, the police and Ngāti Tama visited the crew and invited the group to meet with them on Wednesday at a “neutral location,” project manager Chris Nally said.
“We hope to resolve this issue quickly, knowing that the people of Taranaki look forward to the progress of this project.”
However, the offer was not accepted. Waka Kotahi said they are working on “next steps” to get work going again.
The transport authority said the modernization of the existing route had been evaluated in great detail but had not met the project’s resilience and safety goals.
“In particular, it would not have adequately stabilized a large landslide on the north face of Mt. Messenger, significantly affecting the resilience of the current route.”
Waka Kotahi also said 32 hectares of vegetation, including native forest, would be cleared or disturbed during the project, but that 32 hectares of forest, wetlands and riparian planting of about 120,000 plants would be undertaken to compensate.
“Indigenous habitat in the Mangapēpeke Valley will not be destroyed by the construction of the bypass.”
In fact, planting and removing livestock from the upper valley, as proposed in the project’s ecological mitigation plan, will improve the valley’s ecological status compared to its current status, Waka Kotahi said.
In addition, the project will provide a permanent pest control program covering 3,650 hectares or 36.5 square kilometers that will be intensively managed and aimed at increasing the diversity and numbers of native plants and animals inhabiting the area, including kiwi, long-tailed bats and lizards.