In the 1840s and early 1850s there was little road construction. Where streets or roads were formed the work was typically done by local residents. In the late 1850s and early 1860s some early road boards formed. These were early local authorities that could collect money to pay for road building and maintenance. They did not last long and struggled to collect money. From 1854 until 1876 the construction and maintenance of civilian roads was mainly the responsibility of provincial governments. They built and maintained main roads, and set up road boards to develop and maintain local and district roads. Provincial governments tried to legislate and survey roads into existence – but they sometimes could not afford to build them, and many roads existed only on paper.
Money was spent in the province where it was raised. In some cases this led to roads not linking up well to those in other provinces – but this was not much of an issue when most roads were used for short trips. It was evident that centralised planning was needed. This happened in 1876 when the provinces were abolished.
Most early road planning and building was carried out by local authorities, leading to variations in road surfaces. The most distinctive roads were those of Taranaki, which had steeply arched cambers. This helped to shed rainfall – especially if they were sealed by asphalt.
From 1876 until 1922, road boards (and later county councils, which took over their role) did most road building and maintenance. Central government assisted by subsidising road building, providing grants to councils, or building roads and then handing ownership and maintenance responsibilities to local councils.
In 1882 the Road Boards Act divided the country into road districts, each governed by a road board. Initially there were 319 boards; this reduced to 209 in 1907 and 59 in 1922, as the county councils took over road boards.
The Counties Act 1876 allowed local councils to put up toll gates and levy charges. There were already toll gates in operation – in 1868 there were 13 in Otago. In the 1850s there were toll houses on the Great South Road in Auckland, which helped to pay for the metalling (surfacing the road with gravel or crushed rocks). Toll gates were unpopular with many. In 1890 citizens at Kaiwharawhara, Wellington, burned toll gates and threw them over the Hutt Road into the harbour.
Taranaki authorities were most enthusiastic in adopting toll roads, and by 1906 they had seven gates. In the early 20th century the area had some of the North Island’s best roads, due in large part to the tolls. By 1935 two-thirds of Taranaki’s main roads were sealed.
Toll gates disappeared in 1922 when the Main Highways Act was passed. They were used only occasionally, for instance on the Auckland Harbour Bridge from 1959 to 1984, in the Lyttelton road tunnel from 1964 to 1978, and on the Tauranga Harbour Bridge from 1988 to 2001. In the early 2000s toll roads were back. The Northern Gateway Toll Road, part of State Highway 1 that bypasses Ōrewa, opened in 2009. It cost $2 for cars and $4 for trucks. Tolls were calculated electronically and there were no booths.
Thank the Japanese
Very little of the West Coast side of the Arthur’s Pass road had been sealed before the Second World War – when a sudden upswing in sealing occurred. The government was worried that the Japanese might attack to gain control of West Coast coal. An army report stated, ‘New Zealand forces had difficulty using this pass, so it was obvious that if the Japanese came they would be too scared to drive over the pass in its present condition.’1
The Public Works Department, created in 1870, was responsible for building and maintaining main roads until 1889, when control of road works passed to the Survey Department. Then in 1901 it moved to the newly formed Department of Roads, which was amalgamated with the Public Works Department in 1909.
The government focused on main roads linking settlements. Yet public works of the 1870s favoured rail development at the expense of roads, and the economic depression of the 1890s saw tight control of government spending.
Road board rates
Road boards could not raise much money as most of the population had very little. Initially the only people who could afford road boards rates were the few large landowners. Councillors were reluctant to raise rates as this would have been political suicide. In poorer, less populated areas such as Northland and the East Coast, roads were especially bad. The sub-tropical ‘winterless north’ was also dubbed the ‘roadless north’.
By 1920 motor vehicles were rapidly replacing horse-drawn vehicles. New roading standards were needed, especially for main arterial roads. Until then most road trips had been local. But traffic was increasingly going from one area to another, and building through roads was beyond the resources of local authorities. National funding and coordination was necessary.