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Darling backs consultants with road building bonanza

TRANSPORT SECRETARY Alistair Darling this week backed a major road widening programme on the recommendations of consultants he had previously criticised for producing 'muddled' congestion solutions.

Last month he lambasted government consultants for including too many schemes in recommendations arising from a series of multi modal studies (NCE 7 November). He also criticised them for failing to go into enough detail to justify them.

The multi modal studies were commissioned to produce solutions to traffic congestion around England.

On Tuesday he gave the goahead for a £5.5bn programme of transport schemes focussing heavily on motorway and trunk road widening.

These include projects to widen the M6 and M1 motorways, worth a total of £1.6bn.

Sections of the M1 in the east Midlands and the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester are to be widened from three to four lanes in each direction.

This was exactly as recommended in multi modal studies carried out by Arup and Scott Wilson on the M6 and Atkins for the M1.

However, the plans exclude a 20km stretch of the M1 between junctions 25 and 27 which Atkins said should be widened to five lanes in each direction.

Darling also announced major widening schemes for the M4, M5, A1, A453 and A303 (see box).

Darling also followed his consultants recommendations by avoiding mention of the need for tolling on inter-urban roads in his announcement.

Arup and Scott Wilson had argued that tolling should not be considered for the M6 until after 2020. Atkins did not recommend tolling the M1 in the East Midlands at all.

Attention will now focus on how quickly the Highways Agency can work up the schemes emerging from Darling's decisions(see box).

'The consultants recommendation of completing these schemes by 2020 is a worst case scenario, ' said CBI transport policy advisor Andrew Tessyman.

'We hope some of the Highways Agency's new procurement initiatives can deliver these schemes much quicker.' It will depend on whether the widening involves time consuming land take or can be done within existing boundaries, he added. This is still uncertain.

Meanwhile, Darling caused consternation from pro road groups and environmentalists alike by ducking a decision on the whether the A303 through the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Somerset should be widened.

Consultant Halcrow backed dualling the A358 from Ilminster to Taunton instead in its South West Area Region Multi-Modal Study. But this was overruled by the South West Regional Assembly which opted for widening through the Blackdown Hills.

Darling has ordered further study on of each option.

The decisions have been slammed as a 'road binge' by environmentalists but were welcomed by the road industry.

Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief economist Jim Turner said that the schemes would start to feed through in 'latter part of the decade' but warned that the industry was still faced with a worrying lack of work on highways in the middle part of the decade.

Projects given the go-ahead

Widening the M6 between Manchester and Birmingham from three to four lanes between Junctions 11a and 19.

lWidening the M1 in the East Midlands to four lanes between junctions 21 and 30.

Climbing lanes for HGVs and junction improvements on sections of the M4 and M5 near Bristol.

Completing the A1 dualling between Morpeth and Alnwick.

Dualling most of the remaining single carriageway of the A303.

Funding approval for three extensions to the Manchester Metrolink light rail system.

Approval in principle for Merseytram light rail line in Liverpool.

Nineteen major local transport schemes over £5M approved for 2003/2004.

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