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A3 Devil's Punchbowl decision will be made next month

A FINAL decision on whether to build the £370M A3 Hindhead tunnel will be made by the end of October, the Highways Agency said this month.

Renewed doubt had been cast over the scheme, to divert the A3 via a 1.9km tunnel beneath the Devil's Punch Bowl, after the government revealed that since a public inquiry two years ago costs had soared from £240M to £370M.

Despite an inspector's recent recommendation in favour of the scheme, in July transport secretary Douglas Alexander said he was only 'minded to' approve the scheme.

A spokeswoman for the Highways Agency explained Alexander needed to view the results of a new consultation into the higher cost of the scheme before the government could commit to it.

'The reason for the 'minded to' decision was simply that the inspector in his conclusions referred to the cost of the scheme and alternatives that were before the inquiry.

'It was therefore only right that those who made representations to the inquiry had an opportunity to comment on the new information on costs, ' she said.

The increase is fuelled by construction in ion running at twice the rate originally allowed for.

Tunnelling regulations have also been tightened.

These factors make the alternative of a bypass - rejected at public inquiry - signi cantly more costeffective. The preferred route now has a benefit to cost ratio (BCR) of 2.8 and the bypass a BCR of 4.0.

Alexander's 'minded to' statement emerged just weeks after roads minister Stephen Ladyman included the road tunnel in the programme of schemes the government expects to fund in the South East in the next three years.

Ladyman put the scheme in the regional funding programme in July, subject to a satisfactory report from the public inquiry inspector.

This inclusion reflected the South East Regional Assembly's advice that the scheme is a high funding priority (GE February 2006).

SERA said it was keen to continue with the proposed scheme, but would be looking to government to make up the cost increase.

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