THE Highways Agency plans to spend millions of pounds on strengthening the A14 viaduct in Huntingdon next year, even before the longer-term future of the structure is decided.

The viaduct, which spans the East Coast mainline railway and Brampton Road, was scheduled to have been demolished under a £1.2bn improvement scheme for the A14 - but that was abandoned in October 2010 on cost grounds.

The decision meant, according to Cambridgeshire business leaders, that it will be at least 15 years before A14 congestion and its resulting damage to the local, regional and national economies will be tackled in any meaningful way.

The work envisaged by the agency between Christmas 2012 and Christmas 2013 involves installing suspended steel beams below the existing viaduct, leading to a permanent height restriction on the B1514 Brampton Road just north of Huntingdon railway station.

But the Highways Agency has denied that it is pre-judging the outcome of current work to find an affordable alternative to the abandoned scheme, which also included a new southern bypass of Huntingdon and Godmanchester.

A spokesman told The Hunts Post: "While the section of the A14 carried by the viaduct is within the A14 Challenge study area, it is not known if there will be any recommendations from this work that will affect the usage of the viaduct.

"Even if they do affect the viaduct, the timescale for their implementation is not known at this time and it is therefore necessary to plan the strengthening works now."

She added that the structure had been showing signs of deterioration for more than 10 years, and the plan had been to keep it safe until it was demolished under the improvement scheme.

"While the existing structure is safe, the ongoing deterioration of the structure would, without intervention, get to a point where it would be incapable of carrying the required traffic," she explained.

"We looked at a number of different options - some for strengthening the bridge and others for replacing it. We are confident that the scheme we have chosen is the best and most affordable option.

"Regarding the reduction in headroom below the viaduct on Brampton Road, we will install a system to identify over-height vehicles and display warning signs to prevent vehicles striking the structure and alert them sufficiently far in advance to choose alternative routes.

"We are looking at options to provide turning areas adjacent to the bridge so that any over-height vehicles can easily turn around if they get to the structure having not taken note of previous signs.

"We are in consultation with Cambridgeshire County Council and local bus operators to minimise the impact on the local road network. Provision will be retained for emergency services through the site at all times."