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Jolt for roads sector as recognition of environmental concerns grows

For anyone who may have thought that the Green Agenda had fallen by the wayside, a key decision earlier this month served as a stark reminder for why it shouldn’t be ignored.

The Highways Agency made a momentous decision earlier this month by shelving plans for hard shoulder running on one of its key Managed Motorways projects – known now as Smart Motorways. And in doing so it showed how European Union (EU) air quality targets are becoming so influential in one of the most important sectors for the construction industry (News last week).

The problem was straightforward: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions close to roadsides are already too high in Greater Manchester, along with other major cities, and the Agency became too fearful of the detrimental effect that adding hard shoulder running between junctions 8 and 15 of the M60 would have to human health.

“We looked extensively at the option to provide all lane [hard shoulder] running on the M60 section between junctions 8 and 18,” says the Agency’s consultation document for the scheme.

“However, our environmental assessment concluded that creating this improvement would result in an increase in traffic using the motorway which would then have a detrimental affect [sic] on air quality.”

The project has been around in one incarnation or another for some years, amid concerns that from 2025 drivers using that stretch of motorway would begin to experience significant delays to their journeys.

The EU air quality targets and the UK’s failure to meet them have been known for some time too. The government’s 2011 submission to the European Commission on its Air Quality Plans relating to NO2 limits gave a clear picture of how far off we are. Greater London unsurprisingly came off the worst with 1,287km of road exceeding the annual limit followed by the West Midlands with 265km and Greater Manchester with 261km. The latter two were predicted in 2011 to become compliant with EU regulations by 2020 with London following suit before 2025.

Despite the problems being known for some time, the
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs still says that meeting EU air quality limits for NO2 close to roadsides in London and other major cities remains “very challenging”.

Green campaigners were pleased by the Agency’s decision to hold fire on instigating the M60 hard shoulder running project .

But the vehemence with which they praised its bold decision made clear that this was expected to set a precedent for other congestion-busting schemes that would potentially threaten human health.

One senior transport industry source said this was the first time that any transport project had met with a “really hard environmental limit”.

The Campaign for Better Transport said that the Agency had “explicitly acknowledged” that environmental laws prevented it from opening up the hard shoulder. It pointed to other schemes that would potentially now be under threat from other widening schemes to new roads schemes such as the proposed Silvertown crossing of the River Thames in east London.

The Agency was quick to emphasise that each scheme would be assessed on its own merits, implying that it had now undertaken a Smart Motorways or road building rethink. It was also keen to stress that the hard shoulder running for the M60 scheme had not been altogether abandoned and did not rule out pursuing it again in the future. “We will not convert the hard shoulder to a traffic lane on the M60 section until we have reviewed the options for delivering increased capacity there,” it said in a statement.

Transport for London, which has responsibility for the Silvertown scheme, would not be drawn on the implications for its new road building plans and simply said it had yet to undertake and publish “detailed traffic and environmental impact information” as part of the statutory consultation in 2014.

The M60 is not the first known scheme of late to come under such scrutiny for its potential threat to human health. Environmental lobby group Clean Air in London last month lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission against the UK government over its 2010 decision to suspend the 5.6km long bus lane that occupied part of the M4 on the London-bound carriageway near Heathrow.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin decided to permanently remove the bus lane on 2 September, after it had been temporarily suspended by former transport secretary Philip Hammond in 2010. Clean Air London says the government had failed to undertake an environmental impact assessment, consultation or inquiry, with the consequence of being “aggravated, unmitigated and ongoing breaches of the NO2 annual limit”.

It said that Greater London has the highest NO2 concentrations of any European capital and that McLoughlin had made no plans for mitigation.

It quotes the M4 Bus Lane Air Quality Study Highways Agency briefing note prepared in 2012 by a Hyder/Halcrow joint venture which makes clear the impact of the removal of bus lane on emissions.

“Following air quality modelling of traffic flows for both with and without the M4 Bus Lane, it was concluded that NO2 concentrations at receptors in close proximity to the M4 were predicted to be higher following the removal of the M4 Bus Lane,” says the study.

So it seems there is a real issue here, and by highlighting it loudly and clearly the green lobbyists’ cause may be gaining some traction.

It will be interesting to see how seriously the client organisations – and ultimately the UK government – take the issue.

One point that keeps recurring in talking to senior industry sources is that tackling this issue may require some truly joined-up thinking to come up with a workable solution – something that they fear has never been done.

For Manchester’s M60 scheme there is a suggestion the that Department for Transport, Highways Agency and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) – and perhaps even more agencies – must get together to find ways to offset a revisited hard shoulder running plan.

For instance, there are ongoing discussions about whether TfGM can exert pressure on bus operators to retrofit buses with equipment to reduce pollution – offsetting any rise in NO2 generated by creating capacity through hard shoulder running.

There is even talk of agencies coming together to share the responsibility, with homeowners perhaps be incentivised to install less polluting boilers to help cut emissions.

Transport experts have told NCE that there are some good practice examples of local passenger transport executives and councils coming together to think of the bigger picture, but that these are too few and far between to give confidence.

But it is becoming clearer ignoring the problem will not make it go away anytime soon. And, with billions of pounds of roads spend planned in the coming years, that could have serious repercussions for the construction industry.

BOX

Managed Motorways to Smart Motorways – a glossary

n Lane gain also known as all-lane running  adding a lane within an existing highway boundary

n        Managed Motorway now referred to as Smart Motorway combined approach most typically involving upgrading hard shoulder to accommodate peak time traffic and installing technology to manage traffic via variable speed limits

n        Controlled motorway uses variable mandatory speed limits at peak congestion times or following an incident. It is also a component of Smart Motorways.

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