New speed limits enforced for high-risk Milford Rd

This stretch of road from the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound, will have a new speed limit as of August 11. Photo: File

PLANS to upgrade Fiordland’s Homer Tunnel have had to shift, with originally proposed safety improvements proving too expensive for the Government-funded project.

State Highway 94, from Te Anau to Milford Sound, was one of five stretches of state highway in New Zealand which had a persistently high personal risk throughout a 15-year period from 2002 to 2016, meaning the risk to an individual being involved in a crash was high.

Along the road is the 1.2km-long Homer Tunnel, built between 1935 and 1953.

Last year, the Government announced $25 million in funding for tunnel safety improvements through its rejuvenation package aimed at kick-starting the post-Covid-19 economic rebuild.

A Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency update on the upgrades to Inside Resources last month explains the project looked at options for a deluge (fire suppression) system, ventilation and pedestrian refuges within the tunnel along with a package of safety improvements.

At a cost of $3 million, the package of safety works had begun, which were the recommendations of an investigation into a car fire in the tunnel at the start of 2020.

While the other three options were investigated, the funding required went over the budget remaining of $22 million and it had to review another option to increase safety for road users and crew at the tunnel.

Subject to Crown Infrastructure Partners endorsement, it would proceed with letting the construction tender.

The new option involved the existing eastern avalanche shelter, the structure at the tunnel entrance, which had reached the end of its useful life.

The update explains the design was hoped to be completed this year with work to start in 2022.

Given the need to work around the avalanche season and the complexity of working in the extreme environment, the avalanche shelter would be completed in 2023.

Among documents obtained by the Southland Express, from April this year, an Avalanche Shelter Preliminary Options Assessment details the shelter could be extended by 60m to 120m within the available budget.

A near 35m-long reinforced concrete avalanche shelter was to provide avalanche protection to workers during construction of the tunnel.

It was originally about 150m long but had been damaged over the years, including by an avalanche in 1945.

The document states any of the proposed avalanche shelter options could be extended in the future and the estimated cost to construct the preferred option 50m beyond the portal, was between $7.5 million and $15 million.

Improvements to the plant room and relocation of equipment would cost between $2 million and $4 million.

“Longer term, extending the avalanche shelter over the full length of the East Homer avalanche path, to a similar extent as existed with the original structure, appears to offer significant benefits.

“Beyond current available funding, this is likely to require a further investment of between $15 million to $30 million.”

It was estimated the work would employ 67 people.

The agency had listed the tender “Homer Tunnel Avalanche Shelter and Implementation” and submissions closed yesterday.

Waka Kotahi Engagement and Partnerships general manager Karen Jones is the agency’s representative on the Milford Opportunities Project.

The project began in 2017, after concerns about the rapidly growing visitor numbers in Milford Sound Piopiotahi were raised by Southland District Council and the Department of Conservation.

A recommendation to more evenly distribute numbers through a park-and-ride and permit system, was to address these concerns.

While the agency did not have a view on the specific recommendations put forward in the Milford Masterplan, announced last week, Ms Jones said it was supportive of the plan’s objectives.

She said reducing private vehicle access and shifting more journeys to bus travel would improve safety and environmental outcomes as well as improving the overall visitor experience.

While not linked to the project or tunnel upgrades specifically, permanent new speed limits have been put in place on the notoriously challenging stretch of highway.

The NZ Transport Agency announced on Monday its new speed limits for State Highway 94 from the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound.

Regional relationships director James Caygill said the agency wanted to prevent people being killed or seriously injured on the steep and challenging section of road.

The change was part of an initiative identifying highways where lower speed limits could make a difference in saving peoples lives, and where communities were calling for change.

Consultation with iwi, the communities and business operators in Milford Sound and Te Anau, residents along the route, road users and stakeholders, started about 18 months ago.

Between 2009 and 2018, there were 76 crashes between the eastern entrance of the Homer Tunnel and Milford Sound.

These claimed three lives and seriously injured eight people.

About 40% of the 76 crashes occurred in the 2016 to 2018 period, when traffic volumes were high; visitor numbers to Milford Sound peaked at 870,000 visitors in 2019, up from 430,000 in 2013.

Mr Caygill said consultation feedback showed broad but not unanimous support for lower speed limits.

“Some of the submitters wanted other measures to improve safety including addressing dangerous driver behaviour, increased police enforcement and providing more safe passing opportunities.”

He said there had been other improvements during the past three years, including bridge-widening, safety barriers, and curve signs.

Speed limits from August 11 Homer Tunnel:

From eastern approach (1km), western approach (2km) and 1.7km through tunnel: variable 30kmh-60kmh.

Western side of Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound (14km): 80kmh

Milford Sound: Current 30kmh limit extended to east of Deep Basin Access Rd by 500m.