Plans published by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly in her Command Paper outlined a £6bn programme of investment in the network over the next six years.
This plan, which will put Advanced Traffic Management (ATM), hard shoulder running, toll lanes and urban congestion charging as core to tackling congestion and boosting journey time reliability, was hailed by Highways Agency chief executive Graham Dalton as a commitment to "intelligent solutions" to congestion in a "changing world".
"This is going to allow us to build a five six year programme with a great deal of confidence," he told NCE, insisting that the announcement showed a long term commitment by Government to invest in the network despite recent indications that public spending would have to be reined back.
"I am sure that quite rightly there will be pressure on us to be efficient and to demonstrate efficiency across the piece. That is good healthy stuff," he said. "We are at the beginning of a three year settlement period. If those conversations were going on (that there isn't the cash available) then Ruth Kelly wouldn't have stood up and started a £6bn spend."
Dalton said that the increased use of ATM was not a "cheapskate" method of increasing capacity but a cost effective means to manage congestion. The recent M42 trial, he said, had demonstrated that it was not only an effective way to keep traffic moving but also that it was appreciated and accepted by the public.
"ATM is proven - it works," he said. "The public expect a predictable journey in which they keep moving. Things like ATM do keep you moving by taking out that block in flow."
Dalton also said that, following Kelly's announcement, the Agency would be working closely with the Department for Transport (DfT) to identify how urban congestion charging and other methods of charging for additional road capacity could be introduced. However, he ruled out any moves to introduce national road user charging schemes.
"We are supporting the department (DfT) very closely to see what are technological solutions would meet their (congestion reduction) objectives," he said. "But national road user charging is not even on my radar."
In contrast to Dalton’s support, Kelly’s announcement was criticised contractors and consultants. The Civil Engineering Contractors Association called on Kelly to clarify how it proposes to manage the UK's strategic road network by setting out in detail which major projects will be constructed up to 2014.
Association for Consultancy and Engineering chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin said: "Although we welcome the fact that money is being made available to revamp the existing network and to make better use of existing roads through improved traffic management and initiatives like hard shoulder running, the plans announced by Ruth Kelly are very disappointing and fall far short of what is needed to update and revitalise the UK's aging roads infrastructure."
Also announced by Kelly last week was a raft of revised cost estimates for the 15 national and 25 regional schemes currently in the Agency's delivery plan. This highlighted that for many of the schemes, outturn costs continues to be far in excess of the cost prediction at programme entry stage.
Dalton accepted that, as the recent Nichols review had pointed out last year, prediction and control of costs remains a key challenge for the Agency.
"The cost estimating (on highway projects) has not been right - we have not been able to forecast," he says. "But this is by not means unique to road or to transport."
Dalton said out that roughly half the cost hikes are down to poorly predicted inflation costs with the remainder down to scope creep - a consequence of having to price up schemes very early in development.
"We have to publish numbers quite early on - often not much beyond the bright ideas stage," he explains. "There is a requirement for openness. It is right that if you go into a public inquiry for a scheme that (the project cost) is subject to interrogation."
As a consequence the latest command paper now presents cost estimates for schemes under development as a minimum and maximum range to take account of the potential variation in scope as the scheme progresses.
Dalton added that following the recommendations of Nichols, the Agency was now adopting a much more rigorous project management process known as the Projects Control Framework - a similar system to the GRIP system used by Network Rail.
"What I want to do is build up the technical and engineering capability as an infrastructure owner and maintainer and developer to bring that bit back up," he said.
"There are a good number of very good engineers here. But it is not just about engineering it is about the whole construction investment management."