THE Government has given its clearest hint yet that the £1billion-plus scheme to improve and toll the A14 is not just back in the programme but on the fast track.

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A strengthening scheme for the viaduct over the East Coast mainline railway in Huntingdon was to have cost between £8million and £11m, when it was announced by the Highways Agency at the beginning of the year.

But now, in a reply to Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly, Roads Minister Stephen Hammond says the remedial works needed to keep the deteriorating 1970s viaduct open to traffic is estimated at £7.5m.

Since the prospect of the cost of a civil engineering project reducing is virtually unheard of – the £116.7m guided busway scheme actually cost around £180m – the minister’s announcement suggests the viaduct can be demolished sooner rather than later.

Demolition was originally to have followed £1.2bn of improvements to the road between Ellington and Fen Ditton, including a new southern bypass of Huntingdon and Godmanchester. That scheme was ditched as ‘unaffordable’ by Chancellor George Osborne in October 2010.

Between then and this summer the Prime Minister and Chancellor have come to understand that, because Cambridgeshire is the fastest-growing county in the UK and Cambridge’s economic output is a key component of recovery, the A14 improvement scheme has to be at the top of the list of strategic road improvements.

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles acknowledged its importance last when he visited the new enterprise zone at Alconbury Weald and the new town of Northstowe on another abandoned WWII airfield, at Oakington.

What has changed with the A14 scheme, apart from the delay, is the funding mechanism – with an element of tolling and some contribution from local authorities.

The sooner the viaduct can be pulled down the less the Highways Agency will have to pay to keep it open in the meantime – and the sooner Huntingdon’s economy can reach its full potential.

Mr Djanogly had asked the minister why the Government was spending millions of pounds on the viaduct shortly before embarking on a £1bn scheme that included demolishing it.

Mr Hammond said the viaduct had been showing signs of deterioration for 10 years, and that the option for a new tolled A14 assumed that it would be demolished.

He added: “The exact timescale for the completion of the proposed upgrades is not yet known, and there is therefore a requirement for the viaduct to remain in service for the foreseeable future.

“Although the structure is perfectly safe, it continues to deteriorate, and this is therefore an appropriate time for the agency to carry out essential strengthening work on the viaduct. This will enable the agency to remain confident that the structure can remain in service for as long as is necessary.

“The work that will be carried out is the minimum necessary to meet the requirements and will cost somewhere in the region of £7.5m. Approximately £750,000 is currently spent each year on risk mitigation measures and the monitoring of the viaduct.”

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said yesterday (Tuesday) that the final report on the A14, following a major study by consultants Atkins, would be published “in the next three or four weeks”. She would not be drawn on whether the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on December 5 was a key part of the publication process.

Whether it turns out to be or not, there is no likelihood that the upgrade will be included earlier than the spending round that starts in April 2016. the work is expected to take three years after completion of the statutory processes.

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