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More corners and less speed to save roads cash

New trunk roads should be designed with tighter bends and slower speed limits in an effort to save cash which could be reallocated to local roads, municipal engineers told NCE this week.

They urged the Highways Agency to set lower design standards to enable this to happen. Lower speed limits would mean that bends could be more acute and take up less space.

Slip roads could also be shorter. The result would be that land acquisition costs would be lower and less earthworks and materials would be needed. Grade separated junctions could be replaced by signal controlled junctions as part of the cost saving drive.

Click here for image displaying the increase in costs of Highway Agency Schemes in 12 months

Such changes could save hundreds of millions of pounds without compromising safety, local authority engineers claim. The call for the Agency to lower its design standards is driven by ever-tighter local authority highways budgets.

These have to compete for cash with Highways Agency schemes which are subject to less stringent cost scrutiny. Some trunk road and all local authority road schemes go head to head for funding under the system of Regional Funding Allocations (RFA) that sees cash handed out by Regional Assemblies.

The RFA system was introduced three years ago and last year awarded £784M to the eight English regions. But engineers fear that the cost of Highways Agency road schemes has risen so much (see map) that one trunk road bypass could now swallow up an RFA for several years. As a result local authorities are worried that their road projects have little chance of getting funded.

Engineers in the South West made the proposal to relax standards to government and Highway Agency officials during a recent "peer review session" of proposed road schemes in the region.

"There is quite a debate in the South West about the inclusion of trunk road schemes in the Regional Funding Allocations," said Devon County Council deputy chief executive Edward Chorlton.

"We are trying to get a debate going about standards. There are concerns in the South West that some of the Highways Agency schemes are built to much higher design standards than local authority standards.

"We have been suggesting in our discussions with the Highways Agency that it ought to look at those standards but there appears to be a reluctance of people working for the Agency to look at standards," he said. Engineers have complained that the "over-designing" on some trunk road schemes has made the RFA bidding process unfair because the Highway Agency is not subject to same rigorous budget reviews as local authorities.

Leicestershire County Council director of highways and transportation Matthew Lugg and chairman of the county surveyors body CSS’s engineering committee said: "We have got Highways Agency and local authority road schemes that are subject to different checks and balances bidding for the same pot of money. There is a disconnection there."

A Highways Agency spokesman rejected the call for more stringent cost reviews of its schemes and said that the Agency was already reviewing its schemes under the value engineering framework it launched in July. "This looks at where significant cost reductions can be made. This is the same type of value engineering being carried out by local authorities." A Department for Transport spokesman added that it would not intervene in the debate. "Local authorities are free to set their own design standards and there is no reason why these should be lower than those used for Highways Agency roads," said a spokesman.

But Lugg said bigger Agency schemes in the RFA pot should also be broken up to give local authority projects more chance of winning funding. Other Highways Agency schemes should be taken out of the RFA pot altogether and considered at a national level. "There is tension around competing demands for inadequate money in the regions," said Lugg. "The government has put larger trunk road schemes in with local authority schemes but the cost of the trunk road schemes is going through the roof. "The trunk road schemes should be taken out and considered at a national level."

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