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ROADS: PROCUREMENT - A new Highways Agency approach to procuring highway projects is being tried out on the A500 project in Stoke. Jon Masters reports.

Early involvement of contractors is viewed by the Highways Agency as the key to accelerating highway projects through statutory procedures and onto site more quickly. This was evident in 1999 when the Agency announced that the A500 City Road and Stoke Road improvement scheme would form the first of a planned series of early contractor appointment pilots. Edmund Nuttall was awarded a contract in May this year and has now started the planning phase crucial to the pilot's success.

The Agency was committed to speed up delivery of its publicly funded schemes after the government's 1998 road review.

Early supplier involvement through design and build (D&B) contracts was identified as the way forward, with the added requirement of working closely with local authorities.

The initiative was named Pathfinder, and in its 10 year business plan the Agency has stated its intention to develop further early D&B schemes.

The A500 Pathfinder has been split into two phases. The first started with the contract award and will finish when the Notice to Proceed to Construction is presented. Construction - the second phase - then starts. Nuttall has undertaken an Agency form of D&B contract, which has been drawn up to provide incentives to get the project through the statutory procedures as quickly as possible.

Phase one fees are payable according to Nuttall's target costs for planning and design at six milestones during the statutory procedures. These are publication of draft orders;

completion of public inquiry if needed as a result of objections being raised; receipt of inspector's report; secretary of state's decision; Notice to Proceed after challenge period; and Notice to Proceed to Construction.

'We hope to have draft orders to build the road in place by the end of the year. By this time Nuttall will have carried out substantial planning and design, ' says Agency project sponsor Neil Owen. 'This should make negotiation of statutory procedures much quicker and easier.'

The Agency believes fewer objections are likely because there will already be answers to questions such as where the compound will be located, where materials will come from and be taken to, and what the method of construction and traffic management will be.

'The tendering process will also be out of the way and the contractor will have the environmental statement prepared, ' Owen adds. 'We are looking to save around 18 months, although phase one may become significantly shorter if there are no objections. This may happen because the A500 is a good example of a scheme popular with its local community.'

Owen says at £33M, the A500 project is a good size to adopt as the pilot scheme and contention over route and outline design is unlikely as this is fixed. The 3km of A500 through Stoke from the A50 to Shelton New Road currently consists of dual carriageway separated by a wide central reserve, which Owen says has been reserved for future road improvement since the 1970s.

South west Stoke is split in two by the existing road, and pedestrian links between the two halves are poor. Traffic congestion reaches critical levels along a 1km section between two large at-grade roundabouts joining the A500 to City Road and Stoke Road.

The vertical alignment of the new road will be lowered to allow creation of two grade separated junctions. Single span concrete bridges including cycle and footways will give uninterrupted City Road and Stoke Road links across the A500.

Dual three lane carriageway will be built through the two outer sections, while four new lanes will be constructed between the two junctions with the existing roads retained as local feeder routes. A diversion of the River Trent and rerouting the Trent & Mersey Canal into a new open channel will also be necessary.

Construction is expected to take around two years with work starting early in 2003 if Nuttall and the Agency achieve their 18 month time saving in phase one.

Nuttall is not guaranteed the work, which will be carried out to a fixed lump sum. A break point has been built into the contract to enable either client or contractor to back out of the agreement after phase one, although this seems very unlikely.

'All parties want this improvement scheme to be built as quickly as possible, including our partner Stoke City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and local MPs, ' says Owen. 'Several local development schemes important for the regeneration of Stoke have failed to gain planning permission due to inadequate road capacity.'

Stoke City Council had a hand in developing the employer's requirements of the contract documents. It has attended all contract progress meetings and helped with tender quality assessment. The successful tender submission had to complement Stoke's local transport plan, providing cycle and bus lanes to improve access to the area while enhancing the environment.

'We had to make sure we proposed the least contentious scheme, ' says Nuttall's manager of special projects Ian Parish.

'We talked to all interested parties including developers and statutory bodies such as the Environment Agency and British Waterways to ensure we came up with the best proposal to suit everybody.'

Parish says Nuttall also appointed its designer Hyder Consulting and two members of the supply chain, local civils contractor CJ Pearce and Keller Ground Engineering, right from the start. The team is now focused on getting the draft orders published, by which time it must have a fully worked up plan and design. Equally, Pathfinder will only work properly if the design is created with quick and straightforward construction in mind.

However, this is just the first example of the Agency's ambitions to introduce early appointment D&B contracts and Owen says the procedure will be refined through subsequent projects. The next will be the A303 improvement scheme at Stonehenge. Getting this project to site early and attracting local support on a similar scale to that in Stoke may prove more of a challenge.

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