Choices for the A14

CAN the �1.2billion upgrade of the A14 in Cambridgeshire really be abandoned? While it must look a tasty target for savings, the A14 issue is not so simple.

CAN the �1.2billion upgrade of the A14 in Cambridgeshire really be abandoned? While it must look a tasty target for savings, the A14 issue is not so simple. Not only is the project already under way but there is no do-nothing alternative, because of the state of the railway viaduct in Huntingdon. We shall know on October 20 whether the project has survived the review and in what form. At the moment there seem to be three possibilities: IAN MacKELLAR takes a look.

IF the public inquiry that was due to start in earnest in St Ives last Tuesday had gone ahead, work on building the 22-mile upgrade could have started in 2012.

The road, including a new southern bypass for Huntingdon and Godmanchester, could have opened to traffic in 2016, with demolition of the viaduct in Huntingdon the following year.

That process has been delayed – at extra cost – by the decision to put the scheme on hold, but it could probably be put back on track with a delay of, say, six to nine months.

The inquiry was expected to sit for up to three months, with two inspectors considering the whole scheme from Ellington in west Huntingdonshire to Fen Ditton, north-east of Cambridge, and taking around nine months to deliver detailed recommendations to the Secretary of State for Transport, currently Philip Hammond.

Even though Mr Hammond is an accountant, he may decide to let a process that started on All Fools’ Day 2003 finally run its course – looking to longer-term economic prosperity, rather than short-term penny-pinching.

Most Read

If that were to happen, the new Government would effectively be doing what its predecessor never did, which is to guarantee that money would be made available for it.

The fact that such a decision followed the spending review would be significant progress on the previous Government’s assurance that the scheme would go ahead if finance were available.

MINISTERS may be attracted by a middle way that would not only reduce expenditure but still deliver an upgrade.

Sources close to Whitehall believe, as reported exclusively in The Hunts Post, that the Government could decide to transfer the entire project to the private sector as a toll road, comparable to the M6 relief road in the West Midlands.

Such a scheme would inevitably involve some delay while the project was re-evaluated to appeal to potential bidders, including the mechanism of separating the non-toll elements of the scheme, particularly the local roads between Fen Drayton and Girton that are planned to be built parallel to the widened A14.

Nonetheless, Such a move might appeal to environmentalists, UK hauliers who have to pay tolls abroad, objectors to the current scheme who wish to see it changed along more eco-friendly lines and businesses.

Road tolling is commonplace in the UK and in continental Europe. Many estuarial crossings have been tolled for years – such as the Thames at Dartford, the Severn and the Humber. And the M6 toll road in the West Midlands has proved to be a price worth paying by many users for avoiding the 1970s Midland Links motorways.

But road tolling can bring different problems, particularly rat-running to avoid the tolls – which is sufficient problem already for villages in the toll-free A14 corridor.

The current road design, which includes an extensive network of parallel local roads and superseded trunk roads, would have to be modified by weight limits or other devices (possibly tolls low enough to make rat-running unattractive or a one-off vignette system such as in Switzerland).

THE big dilemma for the Government is that, attractive though abandoning the scheme to save an average �300million a year for the immediately foreseeable future might seem, that it not the actual saving.

Indeed, it might actually cost more in the short term to cancel the project than to go ahead with it.

There are three big issues for the Treasury to consider. The first is the economic cost of congestion in the A14 corridor – estimated by Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce as billions of pounds wasted by businesses through delays to goods and people – that will not go away.

Then there is the medium-term issue of keeping the Huntingdon viaduct in sufficiently good condition to avoid weight limits, long-term lane closures and gridlock not just in the A14 corridor, but on the A428 bottleneck between Caxton and Black Cat.

But the most expensive price of abandoning or seriously curtailing the scheme – depending on any break-clauses – is likely to be the cost of the Highways Agency’s withdrawing from its deal with a Costain-Skanska joint venture to design the road in detail and build part of it.

The agency has already spent �36million on the project, a sum that might have to be more than matched by remedial work to the viaduct. But those sums might pale into insignificance beside the cost of backing out of the contract.

As Councillor Doug Dew, Huntingdonshire District Council’s cabinet member for strategic planning, so elegantly – if a bit extravagantly – put it this week: “The dilemma for Ministers is that it could cost �500million to cancel it and save a billion.”

Business leaders are maintaining pressure on local MPs to ensure the case for pressing ahead is not lost by default.

John Bridge, chief executive of the chambers of commerce, believes essential maintenance to the viaduct, resulting from delay to the scheme, could add between �30m and �50m over the next 10 years to the Highways Agency’s bill for keeping the existing road open. “What a waste of money,” he said.