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Stone age thinking for zombie roads

When asked why the Great Depression had changed his mind about monetary policy, John Maynard Keynes famously said that when the facts changed, he altered his conclusions. In contrast, when governments and politicians are presented with results that do not fit with their current thinking, they doubt the facts and generally set about trying to change them.

I am not sure what Keynes would have made of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) road network feasibility studies. However, the tendency to ask the same question in different ways until you get the answer you want can clearly be seen in the emerging process.

Announced in the 2013 Spending Review, scoping papers for the first six feasibility studies were recently published on the DfT’s website. Each study purports to address “long-standing problems” on the strategic road network. This includes the A1 in north east England, the A27 along the south coast, the A47 across the East of England and the A303/A30 to the South West. Plans to dual main roads in all of these areas have been the subject of lobbying from business, local authorities and others for many years. All have at various times been drawn up as plans and proposals but have not been taken forward for the simple reason that the costs and benefits just do not add up.

Initial rejection rarely kills a road building proposal, and their supporters often make repeated attempts to revive them. It is no surprise that the DfT’s new feasibility studies are seemingly being used to bring old schemes back to life. Typical of such zombie road projects is the A303 past Stonehenge. Less than 10 years ago, a full review of options for Stonehenge showed that the only scheme consistent with protection of the World Heritage Site would be a bored tunnel several kilometres long. A shorter tunnel project was proposed due to the huge cost of tunnelling, but this was cancelled by ministers in 2007 because it offered low value for money, with a benefit-cost ratio that barely broke even at 1.0 to 1.7.

Back to 2014, and the new DfT feasibility study scoping paper picks out the scheme that was ruled out in 2007 to be the starting point of discussions. What has changed that could possibly justify such a course of action? Even in the narrow terms of DfT economics, the case for the project is worse than when it was last looked at. The rejected proposal’s traffic benefits were calculated using figures from 2003, when daily use of the A303 at Stonehenge was given as 23,400 vehicles. For the same stretch of road, daily traffic flow for 2012 was just 19,057.

Faced with a scheme that does not add up, proponents of the A303 dualling in local and national government are likely to set about creating new facts. That could mean new appraisals which claim outlandish economic benefits for the road, creating jobs and growth across the south west. Rather than spending a fortune trying to resurrect this zombie road, the government should be looking to support more sustainable ways to help people travel to the South West. The winter’s storms brutally exposed the strategic weaknesses in the rail network, for instance. But the DfT is asking only for “solutions to the problems on the feasibility study routes” to inform the department’s first roads investment strategy, due to coincide with the Autumn Statement later this year.

The decision to look again at putting a dual carriageway past Stonehenge shows once more that the Government is becoming obsessed with road-building whatever the damage it causes and at the expense of better, more sustainable alternatives.

  • James McColl is head of campaigns at the Campaign for Better Transport

Readers' comments (1)

  • The ridiculous idea of tunnelling past Stonehenge is the problem. An extra carriageway beside the existing road would soon blend in. Remember the fuss about how the A30 Okehampton Bypass would ruin Dartmoor and how that has blended in

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