THE recently-abandoned £1.2billion A14 improvement scheme could be reinstated as a toll road – without users feeling the pain or the Government facing the up-front cost.

THE solution to getting a new A14 in Huntingdonshire is here.

And it doesn’t involve a 15-year WAIT, drivers paying TOLLS or the country having to find more than £1BILLION.

The A14 improvement scheme could be reinstated as a ‘shadow toll road’, meaning private money pays to build it and the Government pays to use the road for the next 30 or so years before taking ownership.

Ministers have left MPs and campaigners for the road in no doubt that it was just the headline cost that caused them to ditch the scheme in October’s comprehensive spending review.

“I do not believe the scheme is affordable in its current form,” Roads Minister Mike Penning wrote to Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly.

But, perhaps significantly, he added: “I am ordering a study that will identify cost-effective and practical proposals [that] bring benefits and relieve congestion ... This approach will also provide and opportunity for the private sector to play its part in developing schemes to tackle existing problems in the corridor.”

Supporters of the A14 improvements may have to look no further away than Alconbury for a template that meets the Minister’s requirements.

And it will be high on the agenda when the new Greater Cambridge and Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership (of councils and business leaders) meets later this month to agree its agenda.

What could rescue the scheme is what is known as ‘shadow tolling’ – shorthand for a design-build-finance-operate (DBFO) contract – such as is already in use on the 13-mile A1(M) between Alconbury and Alwalton, Peterborough).

Such a possibility is one of only two credible options for reviving the scheme, according to the LEP steering group chairman John Bridge, chief executive of the area’s chambers of commerce.

The (£128m at 1996 prices) A1(M) was built by a joint venture known as Road Management Services (Peterborough) Limited, a consortium of bankers, civil engineers and construction interests, which will operate it for 30 years from its opening in late October 1998. At the end of that time, it must be handed over to the state with a guarantee of at least 10 years’ further residual life. In the meantime, the Government pays shadow tolls on the basis of traffic volume and vehicle type, and the road’s users do not feel a thing.

It was one of the first privately-financed road schemes ever let by the Highways Agency, and is equivalent to private finance initiative (PFI) schemes in other areas of public sector capital projects.

What is particularly attractive to Ministers is that it incentivises the use of good quality materials and workmanship, and transfers most of the financial risk to the private sector – at a price, of course.

In this instance, the price is a shadow toll payment of £22m in the current year, which funds the original construction cost, loan interest, and day-to-day running and maintenance costs. Part of the deal is that the contractor is penalised if lanes are not available to traffic – a development of the ‘lane-rental’ device pioneered by then Transport Secretary Nick Ridley in the mid-1980s for highway maintenance contracts.

Retired civil engineer Ieuan Evans, who lives in Buckden and was the department’s Eastern regional director at the time (in charge of building the A14 when it was known as the A1-M1 link road) is convinced DBFO will be a key component of rescuing the 22-mile project.

“It is absolutely clear to me, because there’s no immediate cash involved,” he told The Hunts Post. “And most of the work the Highways Agency has already done will not be wasted.”

But Mr Evans believes the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, will be sympathetic to his view that a re-fettled A14 viaduct of the railway in Huntingdon should be retained as a diversion route. If that were the case, the re-design would add more time to reviving the project.

That is not an option, Mr Bridge insists. Either the scheme is revived in its present form or the area’s, the region’s, the nation’s and the EU’s users of the A14 must suffer another 15 years of misery and gridlock in Huntingdonshire.

“There are two options to get the current scheme funded – either a toll road or some sort of PFI scheme. Otherwise we are putting ourselves back 15 years.

“We are working with the MPs to see how feasible the options are because, if we don’t continue with the scheme we’ve got, we have to go back to square one.

“Can we spread the cost over a longer period of time, and is there a credible business proposition? Those are the key questions, and we feel there’s a good case,” he told The Hunts Post.

The DfT’s position since the scheme was shelved has been similar to its Minister’s. “We … will undertake a study to identify cost-effective and practical proposals which bring benefits and relieve congestion - looking across modes to ensure we develop sustainable proposals.

“This approach will also provide an opportunity for the private sector to play its part in developing schemes to tackle existing problems in the corridor.”

Yet, bizarrely, a departmental spokesman said yesterday (Tuesday): “It’s too early to say whether that includes DBFO.”

She added: “We are working with the Highways Agency and local stakeholders to define the terms of the A14 study and, when this process is complete, the study will begin.”