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A new bypass will make the route between Durban and Johannesburg slightly shorter and less steep than before, but freeway-dependent businesses in Harrismith and Van Reenen look likely to suffer as the N3 Toll Concession company gets ready to build it alongside the existing toll road.
The proposed route would be 14km shorter than the current one and on a more gentle gradient.
Construction of the new De Beer's Pass route is likely to begin within three years and the cost of travelling between the Durban and Johannesburg is expected to rise, with early plans showing yet another toll plaza just south of Warden in the Free State.
Traffic on the N3 between the two cities is rapidly nearing capacity, triggering the need to build a new four-lane toll highway through the Drakensberg mountains at a cost of at least R4 billion.
For nearly two centuries, all traffic between Durban and Johannesburg has been routed through Van Reenen, a steep and rugged mountain pass often blanketed by fog or snow during the winter.
Neil Tolmie, chief executive of the N3 Toll Concession, said on Tuesday there were plans to build the De Beer's bypass when daily traffic volumes reached 13 900 vehicles. The current volume was 11 000 vehicles at Van Reenen and, based on current projections, the new bypass road would have to be operational before the end of 2014.
Because of the long lead time to build the new 100km bypass, it was likely that construction would have to begin during the second half of 2011.
Tolmie was responding to questions from The Mercury following a discussion on the social and economic implications of the De Beer's Pass project at the recent Transport Conference in Pretoria.
University of Pretoria post-graduate student JJ Olivier told the conference that several shops, restaurants and petrol stations in Harrismith, Van Reenen and Swinburne were likely to be "severely affected" when the new bypass was built.
Olivier suggested that Harrismith was likely to suffer the same fate as Winburg, "a once thriving town which has been reduced to a small town with limited opportunities" after the N1 freeway route was diverted away from the town some years ago.
When the South African Roads Board announced a decision to proceed with the De Beer's route in 1995, Harrismith town clerk Johan Botha said Ladysmith had suffered a similar fate with previous realignments of the N3.
According to Olivier, a group of concerned business people had launched an SMS petition against the new pass in April, after reports that Harrismith could lose out on up to R950-million a year from passing traffic.
Olivier reported that the affected businesses included at least 11 petrol stations, along with several restaurant/retail outlets such as Wimpy, Nando's, Spur, Juicy Lucy, KFC, House of Coffees and the Pringles pub and grill.
"The effect of moving the N3 away from Harrismith has not been researched in great depth...the actual decline in economic activity and the subsequent reduction in employment opportunities will have a major influence on the small rural towns of Harrismith, Swinburne and Van Reenen."
To compensate for lost business and jobs, Olivier suggested that Harrismith should position itself as a tourism gateway to the Drakensberg mountains.
He also reported that transport minister Jeff Radebe, Free State premier Beatrice Marshoff and National Roads Agency chief Nazir Alli held a meeting in Harrismith in April to discuss construction of a new R400-million "logistics service centre/container facility" in the town.
The Harrismith Chronicle reported at the time that a 300 000m2 parcel of land had been identified for the centre in the Industriqwa industrial area.
Tolmie said on Tuesday that his consortium already had environmental approval to go ahead with the De Beer's route once daily traffic reached 13 900 vehicles, although it was investigating alternatives.
However, the De Beer's option was expected to follow a route between Warden and the Tugela toll plaza in KZN.
The route is 14km shorter and not as steep as the Van Reenen's one, leading to substantial cost savings for heavy vehicles in particular.
The new bypass would also be designed as a four-lane freeway, whereas traffic has to slow down to 80km/h on some sections of the Van Reenen route.