Devon County Council expects to sign a partnership agreement with a firm of consultants in the next few weeks.
Chosen from a shortlist of four, from 22 applications, the consultant will supplement the skills of the county's in-house design staff in delivering an expanded package of road works.
Staff of the, as yet unannounced, winner may be in for a few surprises as they get to grips with the style and substance of their new partner, especially any who think of Devon in terms of cream teas and old-fashioned seaside resorts. Devon's Environment Directorate is responsible for the upkeep of 12,000km of road straddling a county with extreme variations of climate.
And its in-house design section complement of 86 people is enough to put the department well within the top 100 in NCE 's Consultants File.
County environment director Edward Chorlton describes his directorate's highway management style as 'proactive'. He goes on to expound his belief that the network should be managed as a service to road users. And by road users he means not only drivers, but pedestrians, cyclists, the operators of public transport and their customers.
One floor down from Chorlton's office at County Hall in Exeter is a key element of the service setup. The Control and Information Room has been extended several times and its and banks of screens now manage the urban traffic control and SCOOT system, the variable message system, CCTV traffic control and CCTV crimewatch system which covers Exeter, park and rides sites and surrounding areas.
This last has a direct line to the police so cameras can be switched to record an individual or an area. More than 80 arrests were made as a result of this link last year alone.
The control room is also the road weather centre for the highway network. Devon was among the first counties to install a network of ice sensors, and these link back to screens which can be correlated with the continuous weather picture. Gritting operations can then be controlled with maximum efficiency - important as each run costs up to £20,000.
One of the oddities of Devon's geography, says Chorlton, is that while the gritting team can be working full out in the north of the county, the south coast is basking in winter sunshine. The weather centre also plays a part in planning maintenance work, able to warn if temperatures are likely to be too high for resurfacing or if the prospect of rain should call for surface dressing to be postponed.
The extremes of climate play havoc with the roads and Devon has a serious backlog of maintenance. The extra cash made available by the Government is welcome - total capital budget for 2002 is £23M, of which £12M is earmarked for maintenance - but Chorlton points out that the increased funds will only begin to renew the county's roads which are currently dealt with on a 407 years cycle; 'from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II' he adds wryly.
Other funds will be directed at improving road safety and traffic flows and encouraging people to use public transport. Bus and cycle lanes are planned, as are pedestrian bridges and more park and ride schemes.
New roads and sophisticated traffic control systems have done away with the summer tailbacks that plagued the county's roads 20 years ago and there is a strict policy of no work on major routes during the summer months or the autumn half term.
A 70km/h speed limit on Dartmoor has resulted in a significant reduction in accidents although problems remain - notably with what Chorlton refers to as 'born again bikers' who account for a disproportionate percentage of fatalities.