Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has thrown out proposals by the Highways Agency to reduce the speed limit on parts of the motorway network to 60mph.
These motorway sections are being upgraded to ‘smart’ motorways, work which gets under way this month. But the extra capacity would potentially breach European clean air targets, the Highways Agency warned, arguing that a speed limit reduction would reduce the roads’ impact on air quality.
However, the Conservative Transport Secretary has rejected this approach and instead asked the Highways Agency to investigate alternatives, while work progresses on the smart motorway schemes over the next 12 to 18 months.
McLoughlin said: “If any proposals continue to include varying speed limits, they must only apply when absolutely necessary. In particular, the Agency must look for alternatives that maintain the 70mph limit wherever possible, particularly when traffic tends to be lighter, such as at weekends and outside of peak commuting hours.
He added: “Let me be absolutely clear, I want all motorways to run at 70mph. While it sometimes makes sense to use variable limits to keep people moving, blanket reductions are not acceptable.
“Smart motorways are an effective and cost efficient way of increasing space on our roads, cutting jams and speeding up journey times and I am pleased to announce the start of work on these schemes.
“These 3 schemes will be constructed as quickly as possible to reduce the impact on those who use the motorways and live near them. Drivers should see an improvement in their journeys when the M1 schemes commence operation from autumn 2015, and when the M3 scheme opens to traffic in 2016.”
Construction on the smart motorways will now start on the M1 junctions 28 to 31 in Derbyshire, M1 junctions 32 to 35a in South Yorkshire, and on the M3 at junction 2 to 4a in Surrey.
Smart motorways convert the hard shoulder to a running lane to boost capacity and smooth traffic, operating either permanently or during busy periods. Overhead variable message signs inform motorists of changes in speed limits, queuing and lane closures, while staff in regional control centres use CCTV to monitor incidents and keep motorists safe.
These schemes aim to boost capacity by a third and improve journey times by up to 10 per cent on the M1 schemes, and 15% on the M3, where average speeds are currently 45mph during rush-hour.