Wednesday, 18 July 2012

UK government adds new (A14) toll road project to programme

The UK Department for Transport has announced that a "major new scheme" has been added to the Highways Agency programme for development, specifically being a remodelled version of the deferred A14 Ellington to Fen Drayton upgrade which I wrote about here.  In essence, this was one of the largest projects on the Highways Agency books that was indefinitely deferred because of cost, now it has been revived in a modified form, with tolls.

The official statement says:

Study work has confirmed that funding for these can be generated in part through tolling a length of the enhanced A14, featuring around 20 miles of new or widened road. However, more work will be taken to determine the best tolling solution, including what length the tolled section should be, how users would pay and what the tariff should be.

What does the new proposal involve?

There are no published maps yet of the preferred option, but many options presented in earlier work undertaken for the DfT.

The project has three core segments:

1.  Widening of part of the Cambridge Northern Bypass.
2.   Construction of new parallel local roads to the A14 from Cambridge to southeast of Huntingdon, and upgrading the existing A14 (perhaps elevating it to motorway status);
3.  Construction of a bypass of Huntingdon on the southern side to the A1.


The first segment is almost certainly not going to be tolled, as it involves simply extra lanes.  Tolling these lanes would generate little revenue and usage, because the distances are too short, and tolling the entire road is out of the question, as it would partly defeat the purpose of the bypass in keeping traffic out of urban Cambridge.  

The third segment  is conceptually easy to toll, as it is a new road, and so should be able to generate some revenue from motorists avoiding delays on the existing one.  However, on its own, it wouldn't be expected to generate much revenue.

The second segment  is the most interesting.  It is government policy to only toll new capacity, and what is proposed is that the current road be retained and enhanced, but disconnected from the interchanges along most of its length.  In parallel, new local roads will be built either side (presumably one way each way) that are connected to the interchanges, essentially performing the function of the current A14 for local traffic.

That allows for the option to leave the new local route untolled, whilst tolling the new one, meaning that local residents wont be disadvantaged, whereas through traffic pays for the new capacity.

It would make sense for this segment of the A14 to be redesignated into motorway as it would have no interchanges of any kind.  With the removal of local traffic it would not need to be widened to six lanes, as there could be four lanes of untolled parallel road for such traffic. 

In short, a rather innovative approach has been proposed that means building a new road, with the same capacity as the existing road, for local traffic which will be untolled, whilst treating the existing road as the "new capacity" for tolling purposes as it will be literally an expressway between the Cambridge northern bypass and M11 and the Huntingdon bypass.

This option appears to correspond to the tolling assumptions made in the report to DfT on options published earlier in the year which states:

• tolling is only possible where a viable alternative for local traffic is available (Achieved);
• when a toll is levied only strategic traffic would use the new sections and hence incur a charge (Achieved);
• the charge would be levied in peak periods only (3 hours in AM and 3 hours in PM) (this is interesting);
• the charge is made for each passage of the route; and
• freight vehicles are charged at a toll twice that of private cars ( the assessment has been undertaken based on a toll of £3/£1.50 respectively).


It is unclear if it is now proposed that tolls be for peak periods only and at such low rates.   Opponents to road building, the Campaign for Better Transport, suggest that £370 million could be raised from tolling (disapprovingly), which is a sizeable contribution to a project likely to cost around £1 billion.

Summary

It is important to emphasise that this project is not going to be fully funded from tolls, and it isn't clear what proportion of funding will be generated from tolls (and that will be dependent on the scale and level of tolls).  However, the mere fact that tolling is being encouraged is promising for projects on this scale, albeit there are few such projects in England (bear in mind, tolling is only a matter in England, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved governments that have their own policies on this).

It is more important to note that it hasn't been approved for funding yet.  No doubt it will be a prime candidate for private investment in highways, whether it be through a renewed Private Finance Initiative (PFI) programme, or a more innovative and far-ranging move to privatise some highways (e.g. one can envisage the A14 being leased off to a private company for 40 years in exchange for undertaking this upgrade work and operating the road).   

This could be the first step on an interesting journey for the future of highways in the UK. 

However it is most important to emphasise that my interpretation of what could be tolled may not come to pass.  The Huntingdon bypass segment is likely to be considered easiest to toll, and I expect the tolling of the Cambridge-Huntingdon segment will create some controversy.

Hopefully it will be packaged up as potentially the UK's first serious highways privatisation, with a mix of toll funding and service payments from central government.   However, reports that construction couldn't begin before 2018 demonstrates that one of the biggest bottlenecks is the planning process.  It takes far longer to plan and select options, and gain approvals to build a road, than to actually build it.

What should happen now?

There will be consultation on the options, but already the AA is opposing the idea of tolling the existing road beside a new parallel untolled road (with the same capacity as the existing road).   What's going to be important is the detail.

The Huntingdon bypass being tolled will be relatively uncontroversial as long as the current route is not downgraded, such as imposing speed restrictions.

The Cambridge to Huntingdon bypass segment will be controversial, especially if the new parallel local route is a substantial reduction in standards compared to the current road.  If it isn't dual carriageway and isn't grade separated, or is significantly speed restricted, then it will be disliked, as motorists will have to use the existing road - tolled - with no interchanges - to maintain the same level of service.   Yet if the new road is similar to the existing road, will it mean little use of the tolled "express lanes" as the existing road will become? 

The previous reports on A14 options considered tolling only at peak times.  That may actually be one of the keys to making it more acceptable, but will it be unduly restricting revenue?
 

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