Katikati residents grill Transport Minister over dangerous road

(Dianna Vezich / Newshub.)
(Dianna Vezich / Newshub.)

Transport Minister Simon Bridges has faced a huge grilling in Katikati, with hundreds of people packing the local memorial hall demanding a bypass be built around the town.

Five Tongan kiwifruit workers were killed on State Highway 2 after their car was hit by a logging truck, and locals say they've long complained about safety issues concerning the road.

"This is a real big tragedy and this highway was known as death highway for a long long time," says Brendan Gibbs, station officer at the Katikati volunteer fire brigade.

The Government has committed hundreds of millions of dollars for road improvements in the area, but locals say the biggest issue is traffic and what the area needs is a bypass.

"Coming from Tauranga to Katikati, we counted 52 trucks in 45 minutes," one woman says.

The locals' frustration meant the meeting got quite heated, something Tauranga resident Mr Bridges says he anticipated.

"[There's] a very localised concern and passion around in their words, getting their town back and having a bypass," Mr Bridges says.

"People have strong views, and rightly so, about their communities."

Mr Gibbs was at the scene of the crash on Tuesday night and says there's no question - there needs to be a bypass.

"Socially and safety-wise, it's very important that we have a bypass," he says.

Locals have raised concerns about the highway's safety in the past but Mr Gibbs says they feel ignored and forgotten about.

"I think the road itself is just not suitable for the sheer number of vehicles," he says.

"We're getting 20,000 vehicles through here a day and that's more than the new Te Puke bypass... It's logical that we should have a bypass."

Mr Bridges says he understands the concerns raised and will now go into consultation - but that doesn't mean a bypass will be built.

"I think the argument that trucks, with a bypass, will increasingly choose this route is something we do have to factor in," he says.

Rather than building a bypass, Mr Bridges wants to further incentivise truck drivers to take the Waikato Expressway.

"Its clear desirability as a freight route is very strong," he says. "But of course what's also is true are these arguments we heard from [locals] around their feelings about their township."

Instead, he is in talks with locals to invest $85 million into improving the highway through median and side barriers.

But the dismissal of a bypass isn't good enough, according to the locals. Mr Gibbs is angry and frustrated at the decision.

"I know people really miss the fellowship with one another. You can't have a cup of coffee with in a café unless you're off the main road. It's just too noisy and dangerous."

Down the road from the meeting was a more sombre scene, with hundreds turning out for a church service to mourn the five lives lost on Tuesday.

Coworkers at the coolhouse have just one month and one paycheck left till the kiwifruit season ends.

They plan to send some of their pay back to the families of the victims in Tonga.

Newshub.

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