(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 3.)
There’s a man named Graeme Farr who’s standing for the mayoralty of all three Wairarapa councils. He’s using his candidacy primarily to promote a road tunnel under the Remutaka Hill.
I can’t see a tunnel happening, because the economics don’t stack up. But I have a sneaking suspicion my wife voted for Farr, contravening my strict instructions. She’s Polish, and genetically programmed to disregard orders.
No doubt there are others living in the Wairarapa who, like her, don’t much care for that steep, winding road over the hill, and many more who believe that a tunnel would unlock (to use a vogueish word) the region’s untapped potential.
But as for me, I want a Remutaka road tunnel about as much as I want a third nostril.
I like the hill. I like the sense of geographical separation from Wellington and the Hutt Valley. When I go to Wellington, it’s always a pleasure to get into the car at the end of the day and point it in the direction of home.
I especially relish the drive back over the hill, which has the almost mystical sensation of passing into a different realm. There’s a point about halfway down the northern side where the Wairarapa valley suddenly comes into glorious view.
It’s always bathed in golden sunshine, no matter how foul the weather on the Wellington side. (Okay, perhaps not always, in fact very rarely at nighttime, but often enough to make me feel smug.)
John Hayes, a former Wairarapa MP, once tried to whip up public interest in a tunnel and approached me for support in the tragic misapprehension that, as a columnist, I might wield some influence.
I politely told him to bugger off. I didn’t want the Wairarapa being invaded by the masses then, and I still don’t. No offence to my friends in Wellington, but I love the fact that there’s a big, formidable barrier to deter interlopers.
I’ve seen what happened to the Kapiti Coast when it morphed from being a pleasant and sleepy seaside retreat to a choked, claustrophobic extension of suburbia.
We lived at Raumati Beach in the 1980s and I knew the rot was setting in when the council insisted on laying a footpath along our street, which had previously had the charming feel of a country lane. We sold up just before they built a housing subdivision in the paddock where our kids used to play.
Since then I’ve watched Kapiti’s infrastructure vainly struggling to catch up with its burgeoning population. It can only get worse when Transmission Gully kicks in.
There’s a lot of growth here in the Wairarapa too, but there's room for it, and it’s manageable.
New subdivisions are going up all over the place and the traffic has intensified to the point where, in what passes for rush hour, you can get stuck at a roundabout for … oh, maybe 20 seconds.
But the Wairarapa still has the distinction of having no traffic lights. How long would that remain the case with traffic pouring through a tunnel?
We can tolerate weekend visitors, with their convoys of motorbikes and classic cars streaming across the hill in search of wide blue skies, open roads, rural pubs and charming rustic scenery, just as long as they head back home at the end of the day.
We’re okay too with those refined, affluent types from Wadestown and Kelburn who buy weekend retreats in Greytown and then decide it’s so nice that they can do without their house in Wellington. That’s the sort of place Greytown is. But who knows what impact a tunnel might have on the town where I live?
One of Masterton’s charms is that it’s still a traditional farming town. I like the fact that when you drive into town, you run a gauntlet of agriculture machinery dealers.
I love hearing topdressing planes flying out at first light from Hood aerodrome and returning home at dusk, and I like the tractors and stock trucks that constantly rumble past our place.
I like the friendly and obliging shopkeepers and tradies, and I like the fact that when I ring a plumber he’s pulling up outside before I hang up the phone. (Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration too.)
I don’t want any of this put at risk by intensified urbanisation and more people, which would be the inevitable result of a tunnel. So my message to Graeme Farr is the same as it was to John Hayes.
On the other hand, if Farr promised to lobby for a high-speed bypass around Carterton, which is surely the world's most boring town to drive through (though only by a slim margin over Dannevirke), he might get my vote in 2022. A flyover would be better still.