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A credit to highways

Portsmouth City Council

Exciting times lie ahead for local authorities, with £8bn to spend over the next five years. Portsmouth City Council is leading the field with an innovative highways maintenance deal.

Of all the deals that councils have struck with the Labour government since 1997, a small unitary authority crept under the noses of its big metropolitan cousins and arguably pulled off the best.

While local authorities everywhere cried themselves hoarse for Treasury cash to reverse the decline in the principal road network, Portsmouth City Council secured 25 years worth of funding at a stroke. It is now set to appoint a consortium to maintain its roads under a privately financed deal with the guarantee of private finance initiative (PFI) credits for highway maintenance from the government for 25 years.

As part of the first ever deal in which a local authority will privately finance maintenance of its road network, Portsmouth is awaiting bids from four consortia in March with the intention of signing contracts in October.

The £33.8M, 25 year concession is expected to start in April 2003.

The four are Balfour Beatty/ Mouchel, Amey Highways, Colas/Pell Frischmann, Norwest Holst/Babtie/Ringway/Southern Electricity Contracting.

Assistant city engineer Jim Comport says he sweated blood persuading the government to agree to the deal which was announced two years ago. He is now expecting 20% savings on maintenance with contractors responsible for keeping the city's roads in good condition and available for use at the risk of not getting paid if their efforts fail.

It is hoped that this will persuade the winning bidder to use good quality, long lasting materials and invest heavily in structural condition of the network to maximise the payments it receives later on. Not a moment too soon, says Comport, as funding for Portsmouth's roads has reached such a nadir that only roads whose condition was so poor as to risk causing a traffic accident have been repaired since August last year.

Ending the situation where only essential repairs are carried out will save a lot of money in the long run, says Comport. 'Reducing the traffic disruption that comes from a poorly maintained network is a lot of the business case.' For every road fatality that properly funded road maintenance might save, add an extra £1M in savings.

There are other advantages for the city council's highways.

'The leaders will be obliged to spend the PFI credits on maintenance rather than hiving it off into other sectors.' There can be no raiding of the road maintenance pot for health or education under this deal. Beleagured municipal engineers will also be relieved at no longer being deluged with 'pothole complaints' from a sick and tired public that has made working in local road maintenance a misery in recent years, he adds.

Meanwhile, other big metropolitan authorities are preparing bids for similar deals. Birmingham City Council has engaged consultant Mott MacDonald - which prepared Portsmouth's bid document - for a PFI road maintenance bid said to be worth nearly £300M.

Portsmouth has received over 60 calls from other local authorities wanting to privately finance their road maintenance.

Portsmouth will be the test case from which others will learn, says Comport. 'They've never been in charge of highway management functions for local authorities and the learning curve is going to go up vertically.

We are predicting radical change in the way that the service is delivered.'

That Portsmouth stole the march on its rivals is put down to an enormous sense of civic pride and desire to put one over neighbouring Southampton.

Portsmouth projects South Hampshire Rapid Transit Portsmouth's much anticipated light rail scheme is finally on track after two years in limbo. Following a successful public inquiry in March 1999 the government did not grant it Transport & Works Act powers until May 2001.

Central government funding is now in place to finance 75% of the £190M system linking Fareham, Gosport and Portsmouth.

Portsmouth, which co-promotes the scheme with Hampshire County Council, is expected to put out an OJEC notice for a concessionaire this month. The concessionaire will build the 14.3km network over three years, privately finance 25% of it on the strength of future fare revenues, and operate the network for 25 years. A consortium will be appointed in late 2003 and it is hoped that South Hampshire Rapid Transit (SHRT) will be operational by 2007.

Much of the construction will be straightforward with 70% of the line running along disused track between Fareham and Gosport.

The main construction challenge will be to build a 1km immersed tube tunnel underneath Portsmouth Harbour.

Ideas for extensions to the public transport network are already being developed. These will be based on a mixture of light rail, heavy rail and bus priority. SHRT could be extended further west into Southampton and beyond.

The partnership approach fostered on SHRT has led to talk of a more formal arrangement between local authorities in South Hampshire to take an overview of all transport in the area. A quasi Passenger Transport Authority for South Hampshire made up of Portsmouth and Southampton city councils and Hampshire County Council has even been mooted. 'We are a conurbation of 900,000 people which is the largest area of population south of London. It is a large and intense urban area with complex transport problems. We can't plan and solve Portsmouth's transport needs within Portsmouth's boundaries, ' says Portsmouth assistant city engineer, Charles Stunell.

Monorail Portsmouth could be the UK's first city to get an electric monorail system. Developer Carr West approached Portsmouth City Council with a proposal to develop a £60M, 11km line to run as a concession. The city council has given its support and included Portsmouth Monorail in its local transport plan.

Carr West has commissioned consultant Symonds to design a scheme using monorail technology based on similar systems in Switzerland and Germany. An application for Transport & Works Act powers will be lodged in late spring.

The line would run north-south along the western corridor of the city, as this will not be served by the proposed light rail scheme. It is designed to relieve the heavily congested M275 spur road into the city, via an interchange where a 2,000 space park and ride will be built. The line will also stop at Queen Alexander Hospital and the Gunwharf Quays development planned at Port Solent.

The project is expected to go to a public inquiry and government approval is not expected until 2004. Monorail is likely to open in 2005.

Ferry Port The council owns the ferry port and is working to improve links to the local railway station with a £10M rail connection. As Portsmouth is one of the most densely built up areas in England, finding a route will be difficult and the local authority is seeking a grant from the Strategic Rail Authority to push the project forward.

Rives Celt Portsmouth working with Sustrans and other local authorities to glue together parts of the cycle infrastructure to link into the Rives Celt route through Brittany, Wales and on to Ireland.

Local transport plan 2002/2003 includes:

£1M a year for highway maintenance over the next five years

£2M a year government funding to develop integrated transport, again over five years.

£1.5M to reconstruct the Johnson & Johnson roundabout, one of the worst accident spots in country.

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