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DBFO first

Essex County Council is the first local authority to win government backing for a PFI road scheme. What makes its project so special?

When the government published its integrated transport White Paper last year it signalled that greater control over transport policy would be handed to local authorities.

Powers to raise cash through parking and congestion charging; local transport plans to smooth investment; quality bus partnerships to boost the performance of operators: all were designed to allow local authorities to make a difference to their travelling public.

There is now a presumption against new road building, unless projects can be more closely integrated within an integrated strategy.

One of the few major road schemes going ahead is the A130 linking Chelmsford and the A127 between Basildon and Southend in Essex. 'This is a road, but it is also a key element of our integrated public transport strategy,' explains Essex County Council principal engineer Colin Cranleigh. 'But funding was way outside the scope of our Transport Policy Plan.'

Essex knew that what it considered a vitally important strategic road would never command enough national significance to get funding centrally. Its own finances via the TPP, now Local Transport Plan grant system, would not cover the £92M whole life cost.

But if it was to push ahead with inter-urban bus services and congestion reduction while opening up a new economic development area, the 13km grade- separated dual carriageway road had to be built.

The solution is via the Private Finance Initiative. This uses a concession company to build and finance the scheme and then look after it for 25 years, paying the operator a combination of shadow tolls and availability payments.

Last month the government announced that it would guarantee to allocate the necessary money to Essex so it could pay for the scheme over the length of the concession. The decision is a historic one as the A130 will be the first DBFO road to be procured by a local authority.

Essex had to spend around £10M putting the scheme together to demonstrate to the Treasury that it offered value for money. 'This money came from Essex ratepayers but we regarded it as our investment - pump priming for the scheme,' explains Cranleigh.

The innovative charging system combines availability payments with shadow tolls. It rewards the operator

for attracting heavy lorries off local roads and on to the route and has already been copied by the Highways Agency on its soon to be awarded A13 DBFO project.

In addition, the knowledge and experience gained during the four years putting the scheme together is now being sold to other local authorities.

So far the project has two preferred bidders preparing 'best and final offers' for the contract. One is the Laing-led CountyRoute consortium and the other is the Tarmac-led Regional Roads group. The project will be supervised on Essex's behalf by WS Atkins.

Work should start at the end of the year but only on the northern half of the route, the southern section having failed so far to win planning approval. If successful, this section should open in 2004, three years after the northern half.

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