The proposed new route.

The proposed new route.

Durban – The South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) is forging on with plans to build a R5 billion alternative freeway to Van Reenen’s Pass in a bid to boost safety and cut congestion in the vital trade corridor.

No new tolls were planned to recoup the cost of the planned 99km stretch on the N3 which will link the Tugela Toll Plaza and Warden, the agency said at a media briefing at Van Reenen yesterday.

The envisaged four-lane highway, 15km shorter than the existing road, was expected to create 26 000 direct and indirect new jobs.

Van Reenen’s Pass is on the main N3 route through the Drakensberg Mountains, connecting Johannesburg and Durban and is a strategic logistics corridor for KZN, the Free State and Gauteng.

But the sweeping pass with its steep, winding roads is notorious for accidents and resulting bottlenecks that cause delays and impact the economy.

Sanral said Van Reenen carried 13 000 to 14 000 vehicles daily, 5600 of them trucks. In 20 years, that would be 32 000 vehicles a day, involving 17 000 trucks.

In 2011, total closure time was 80 hours southbound, and 95 in 2013. Northbound, it increased in those years from 88 to 102 hours.

“WE CAN’T AFFORD DELAYS”

The plans for an alternative route stretch back 44 years and Sanral says it cannot be delayed any longer.

The road agency said it was avoiding a situation like the one facing power utility, Eskom, where delays in the construction of new power stations was costing the economy millions daily through load shedding.

“We currently experience bottlenecks that choke economic activity for the country and with the increase in accidents that we have seen in the past, it delays everyone and impacts on the economy”, said Sanral spokesman, Vusi Mona.

He was talking after Sanral unveiled plans for what will be known as the De Beers Expressway. Depending on the outcome of an environmental impact assessment, construction will take almost two years.

No new tolls would be added on the N3 to recoup the money spent, he said.

Mona said the impact of accidents at Van Reenen’s Pass affected operations at the harbour, logistics companies and business, with millions being lost.

“We can’t wait until there’s an outcry, this project is down to good planning and foresight on Sanral’s part,” he said.

The construction of the new expressway was not to “kill” Van Reenen’s Pass, he said, stressing that it would result in “higher levels of safety, comfort and productivity for all road users”.

Van Reenen’s Pass would remain in service.

“Should the expressway be constructed, it will be an entirely new stretch of highway across the Drakensberg escarpment in the vicinity of the existing De Beer’s Pass. The 99km highway will link Keeversfontein (Tugela Toll Plaza) in KwaZulu-Natal with Warden in the Free State.

“The grades will be much flatter and its alignment will be much smoother without the sharp curves of the existing N3 route. Much time will be saved and better levels of service will result in improved safety and a reduction in accidents,” Mona said.