Turning what Labour called the “holiday highway” into a four-lane expressway from Auckland to Whangarei could bring an economic benefit of nearly two billion a year for Northland each year.

And it could help bring an end to poverty in one of New Zealand’s most deprived regions.

The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) has produced a study of the impact of an expressway for a consortium of Northland businesses.

Its says a four lane road could boost GDP in the north by up to $2 billion a year.

The report, which was commissioned by a group of Northland businesses and  released yesterday, estimates that not only would four-laning State Highway One from Warkworth to Whangarei produce benefits for transport operators but would enable widespread economic growth across the region.

What will now be interesting is whether the Government is willing to allocate the funding for the expressway ahead of that for its latest roading proposal, a tunnel under Wellington.

There was also a clear hint that the Regional Development Minister, Shane Jones, would like to see any proposal for a four-lane highway go through the fast-track approval process.

He told POLITIK that the benefits it would bring would make it an ideal candidate.

The road has been a political football since 2011 when Auckland councillor Mike Lee dreamed up a “holiday highway” for the Northern Motorway extension to Warkworth.

POLITIK Traffic on State Highway One north of Kaiwaka on Easter Monday

Lee linked the name to Sir John Key’s bach at Omaha, 10 km east of Warkworth.

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Then, the opposition leader, Phil Goff, picked up the tag and called for the extension to be scrapped.

National said it would build the road, but when a delegation of four Northland Mayors came to Wellington to lobby for the road with Labour’s new Transport Minister, Phil Twyford, in 2018, they were rebuffed.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the reason was safety concerns.

“One of the things that was consistently raised with me at the same time was safety concerns around that stretch of road (Whangarei to Auckland),” she said.

“We are prioritising greater investment in regional roading but also safety improvements.”

Since then, the Auckland expressway has been extended to Warkworth, and the current Transport Minister, Simeon Brown, has announced three more segments of the road: from Warkworth to Wellsford, the alternative to the Brynderwyns and from Whangarei to Marsden Point to be roads of national significance.

These are all expected to take at least ten years to build.

But that still leaves around 40 km of the 160 km Auckland-Whangarei road as two lanes.

National’s Northland MP Grant McCallum, like Jones, strongly supports the road.

Speaking recently in Parliament’s general debate, he invited MPs to join him in chanting “Build the road’.

The twsiting road over the Brynderwyn Hills, south of Whangarei, with the Cyclone Gabrielle slip.

The NZIER report says some parts of Northland, particularly the Far North, have among the highest levels of socio-economic deprivation in New Zealand.

“High levels of deprivation are associated with poor health, education and employment.

The report says 26% of the region’s residents live in the most deprived decile areas and that Māori are disproportionately affected by socio-economic deprivation.

At $378 per week in 2023, the median income in Northland is the lowest in New Zealand and 59% below the national median of $921.

The report says, “A four-lane expressway on SH1 will promote economic growth and enable businesses to grow, increasing investment, incomes, and employment.”

“It will improve access to jobs, education, and healthcare.

“This will improve wages and reduce socio-economic deprivation. outcomes.”

McCallum told POLITIK that continuing to write cheques by the Government would not solve the social challenges in Northlands.

“The best investment the government can make in Northland and for New Zealand is to help fix those problems by building infrastructure up here that will help enable people to lift the average wage,” he said.

The NZIER study found that an expressway from Auckland to Whangarei would allow faster travel speeds, reducing travel times for vehicles, occupants, and freight. This would result in travel time and vehicle operating cost savings of between $238 million and $467 million a year by 2050.

Reduced road closures due to adverse weather would result in savings of between $5 million and $14 million, and the reduction in serious accidents would reduce the social cost of crashes by between $53 million and $109 million.

Around 800 businesses responded to a business survey, representing 11% of the region’s employers, including 22% of medium and 9% of large businesses.

Nearly 80% of respondents said poor transport infrastructure was one of their top challenges.

Over half said extending the four-lane expressway on SH1 will increase annual revenues and reduce costs by at least 5%.

The NZIER report said, “The impact of low-quality roading in Northland goes beyond the direct impact on drivers on the road.”

“Long travel times and delays cause businesses to accumulate larger inventories and reconfigure their operations.

“Poor connectivity also makes it harder to form networks with customers and suppliers.

“Uncertainty about closures and poor access holds back investment, constraining economic growth.”

The survey concludes that the road could cut costs for businesses in the north by up to $2.2 billion a year, create up to 3430 jobs, and produce additional revenue for businesses of up to $2.2 billion a year.

Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand Chief Executive Dom Kalasiah, and Nick Leggett, Chief Executive of Infrastructure New Zealand, are backing the Northland Corporate Group report.

Recognising the economic potential that lies untapped in the region, both organisations are urging the Government to prioritise the upgrade of State Highway 1 (SH1) between Whangarei and Auckland.

“The current state of Northland’s highway network acts as a significant barrier to economic growth in the region,” Dom Kalasiah says.

“Transporting heavy freight through Northland can be perilous and this inhibits Northport’s ability to service Auckland. However, with strategic infrastructure investments, billions of dollars in economic potential could be unlocked, benefiting not only Northland but also the wider country.”

Infrastructure New Zealand and Ia Ara Aotearoa say they believe that further commitments are necessary to fully realise the economic benefits of a wholesale upgrade of the route.

“The case for a Northland Expressway is about backing Northland to succeed, but it’s also about resilience and the growth of Auckland,” Nick Leggett says.

“Our regions can’t sit in splendid isolation, they need resilient 21st century connections to our major centres. We believe the government should fast-track the commitments they have already made for State Highway One through Northland.”

Those commitments include the construction of a four-lane highway alternative to the Brynderwyns and the extension of four-lane upgrades from Warkworth to Whangarei.

“We agree that it’s time to empower the North and unleash its economic potential for the benefit of its communities and New Zealand. The Government should push hard and deliver a comprehensive expressway through public private partnerships to get the entire route completed faster and to a high standard,” say Kalasiah and Leggett.

The Northland Corporate Group sponsors of the survey are obviously hoping they can persuade the Government to bring forward the start of the missing four lane sections of the highway.

It is ironic that the report has appeared this week at the same time as Infrastructure Minister Chris Bishops’ proposal for a Wellington tunnel.

Jones said he would be putting the case for the Northland Road in his regular meetings on infrastructure with Bishop, and McCallum said the case to alleviate poverty in Northland would be a powerful argument to use with the Cabinet.

And so the “holiday highway” is turning into the “poverty alleviation” highway.