A14 scheme could be revived with tolling

THE A14 improvement scheme aimed at eliminating congestion on the road in Huntingdonshire but abandoned by the Chancellor in October 2010 could yet be back on the books – but in a different time-frame and part-funded by tolling.

It is one of six options being studied by the Department for Transport to address the problems of logjam alley where, although it has no worse an accident record than similar substandard trunk A roads, the impact on delays and lost economic output is among the worst in Britain.

A recent fatal collision between a lorry and a motorcycle near Swavesey resulted in the road being closed for more than eight hours.

That brought the economy of a key part of the ‘golden triangle’ – Cambridge, Oxford and London – that the Government is relying on to lead Britain out of recession to a virtual halt, paralysing not only local output but a key regional, national and European transport artery.

Virtually everyone – other than the anti-road pressure group Campaign for Better Transport and a few well-meaning but poorly informed people who overestimate the contribution the railways can make to reducing the kind of traffic carried on the A14 – is agreed that something needs to be done urgently to put a stent into Cambridgeshire’s sclerotic artery.

But every list of alternatives has to include its share of madcap schemes for the politicians to reject. In this case there are two: one is to build a new southern bypass of Huntingdon, terminating at an improved A1198 in Godmanchester and taking traffic onto the already-dualled section of the A428 at Caxton. The other is to do no more than add a new parallel local road between Hemingford or Galley Hill and Girton, without any other improvement work – cheap, cheerful, helpful for the new town of Northstowe, but otherwise useless, most commentators agree.

All the other options involve a new dual-carriageway Huntingdon southern bypass – six lanes wide if the viaduct over the railway in Huntingdon is demolished, four lanes if it is retained.

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The thing about the viaduct is this: the Highways Agency is about to spend several million pounds on short-term remedial work to shore up the crumbling structure to keep it in use for a decade or more and save the multi-million pound costs of sending minute-by-minute condition data to monitors in Calgary, in western Canada.

A small part of that cash would seemingly be ‘wasted’ if the viaduct were pulled down at the end of the improvement scheme – but it would be close to insignificant in the context of the �1bn-plus improvement scheme that would be worth many times that to the regional economy, even before its wider contribution is considered.

In any case, demolition of the viaduct is also seen as key to the economic prosperity of Huntingdon, which is part of a jigsaw that includes a 150-hectare enterprise zone at Alconbury, 8,000 new high-quality jobs and 5,000 or more homes on 575 eco-friendly acres of former airfield, as well as 1,200 new homes between Stukeley Meadows and Little Stukeley, and 800 houses proposed for east Godmanchester.

A decision on which scheme to take forward is expected to be taken within the next three months. So urgent has it become in Whitehall that a Ministerial announcement is now expected in Parliament’s summer recess, rather than wait for the Commons to resume in the autumn.

Local politicians are virtually unanimous in welcoming the return of the improvement scheme to the top of the Whitehall agenda, and most would back the most – and in the long term most cost-effective – expensive option, more or less the original scheme differently financed.

Road tolling looks a virtual certainty, in one form or another, and the options recommended by consultants Atkins for further work have already been assessed on the basis of their suitability for tolling.

The most expensive to build not only seems to offer the best fit of benefits – fulfilling a combination of national economic and transport aspirations, combined with local and regional social and economic benefits – but, as a longer stretch of improved road, would offer greater potential for toll income and, therefore, involvement of private-sector investment.

Alongside the road improvements, Atkins considered the contributions public transport and railfreight could make to reducing pressure on the A14 corridor.

Some expansion of guided bus services is envisaged, along with additional park-and-ride sites, maybe including one at Huntingdon racecourse, though additional railfreight measures – most of which are already in the planning or delivery phases – would do little more than mop up some of the inevitable increase in projected traffic.

What might help to some extent would be additional intermodal freight hubs (at unspecified locations, but probably well to the west of Huntingdonshire) that could keep containers on the rails for a greater proportion of their journeys before they transfer to road.