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Overview - Perilous route

Highways - Roadbuilders go into 2005 with a sense of trepidation following a rash of government announcements.Can the Highways Agency restore their confidence?

The year 2004 ended with much wailing and gnashing of teeth among road-builders following news that many major road schemes are to be put back or deferred to new regional bodies for prioritisation alongside local transport needs.

It was also a testing year-end for the Highways Agency. Not only did it have to contend with angry contractors demanding to know what has happened to the roads programme; it also had to deal with a scathing report from the National Audit Office accusing it of being 'risk averse' for not introducing congestion busting measures used widely overseas.

The report gave the fiery House of Commons Public Accounts Committee all the ammunition it needed to give chief executive Archie Robertson a thorough going over.

But Robertson stood firm. He insisted that, while in general there may be 'an element of unwillingness to try out the novel thing in government', whenever he saw that unwillingness within the Highways Agency he aimed to stamp it out.

He pointed to his determination to press ahead with trials on dedicated lanes for trucks, his recent recommendations to the transport secretary for a swathe of new high-occupancy vehicle lanes and his drive to install ramp metering at 30 locations across the country.

But he was also careful to make clear that such congestion busting measures alone will not solve the congestion problem.

Road widening and other means to boost the physical capacity of the network remain vital.

'There is only one way to defeat the arithmetic at the end of the day and that is to put in more capacity. Things like ramp metering do not add capacity, ' said Robertson. 'They smooth the flow by controlling the rate at which traffic from the side road goes on to the motorway. We successfully do that in some of our locations: we just have not been able to justify doing it as often as we would like.' Robertson added that small £5M or less schemes such as junction realignments remain a top priority. 'These, in terms of benefit cost ratio, are easily the best show in town, ' he said. 'A good small, £5M scheme will give you three times the benefit to cost ratio of a major road scheme.' In the three year period covered by last year's spending review Robertson said that £1.3bn will be spent on minor schemes and congestion busting initiatives including traffic officers.

But he was insistent that the 'business case' for major widening remained overwhelming. 'You need to do them all [major widening, minor schemes and congestion busting]. This is an environment where demand for road use is going up 17%.' However, Robertson did temper enthusiasm by reflecting on budget constraints. 'I always have more good business cases than I have resources, ' he told the committee.

This statement is reflected in the Highways Agency's plan of action for the next three years.

Of the 33 schemes planned to begin, the start time has gone back on 10 of them when compared with the Agency's own business plan for 2003/04. A further 12 have fallen out of the three year plan completely.

That said, when looking to restore the confidence of roadbuilders, the Agency can reflect on the fact that that £1.9bn has been allocated for 33 new starts by 2008. Compare this to the 14 schemes started over the last three years, and to the fact that just 20 have begun since the targeted programme of improvements was drawn up in 2000.

Progress will, of course, be in the delivery. But from the numbers coming out of the Department of Transport, the commitment to improving the road network appears to be there.

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