The Christchurch-Lyttelton Road Tunnel celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Opened on 27 February 1964, more than 110 years after it was first mooted, the tunnel was hailed by the community as “the new gateway from the Port to the Plains”.
Publicity at the time said the Port Hills were no longer a barrier to road transport; Christchurch and Lyttelton were originally connected by a zigzag path, then a tortuous hilly road, a railway tunnel and finally, 114 years after the first organised settlement of the province, a road tunnel.
Costing £2.7 million, the Lyttelton Tunnel was “among the most modern in the world” and at 1944m long it became New Zealand’s longest road tunnel, which it remains today.
The opening of the tunnel was an important time in the history of Christchurch and Canterbury. It reduced the distance between Lyttelton and Christchurch by five miles (eight kilometres) and avoided the hill climb over Evans Pass/Sumner Road – opening a new era for the region and its industries.
The tunnel was opened by the then Governor General His Excellency Brigadier Sir Bernard Fergusson after more than a century of planning, debating and negotiating, then three years of construction. It was estimated 2000 to 2500 vehicles would use it every day with revenue from tolls expected to be sufficient to meet operating costs.
At the time, the Lyttelton Harbour Board had already been working for some years on a development plan for new berths and wharf transit sheds on the eastern extension. Plans had also been provided to develop the inner harbour.
Since the February 2011 earthquake and the closure of Sumner Road, the Lyttelton Road Tunnel has become the only direct route for port traffic. The tunnel is now carrying about 9600 vehicles each day, 1500 of which are trucks.
Fifty years on, the Lyttelton Tunnel remains a critical lifeline for the South Island and its economy, by connecting the region to the world by the South Island’s largest deep water port, and an important access route for Lyttelton residents.
Festivities are planned in May/June to celebrate the tunnel’s 50th birthday, to coincide with the opening of the new Lyttelton Tunnel Control Building. This will be a community event, during which it is planned to open the tunnel and invite residents to wander through, as their forefathers did back in 1964 when the tunnel first opened.