Tories’ “£15bn roads revolution” is a pre-election con

Today the government announced their intention to spend £15billion on an ambitious set of new road projects, including improvements to several junctions on the M25, a tunnel near Stonehenge on the A303 and the dualling of the A1 north of Newcastle as far as the Scottish border. The reader may have already guessed that there is not the time to do even one of these things before the next election in May next year. A few of these schemes, however, simply will not happen.

To begin with, a brief look at the press releases (like this one for the South East) show that many of the schemes included are already underway or completed, such as the ‘upgrade’ of the M25 in Kent to “smart motorway” (meaning four lanes, no hard shoulder, with some new gantries and flashing light signs) and the widening of the A23 south of Crawley. A good few are in obvious marginal constituencies — the plethora of schemes in East Anglia are obviously intended to buy off UKIP voters, for example, while the target in the south (as with the A303) appears to be the Lib Dems. Some of them are indeed schemes which have been demanded for years, whether by motoring organisations or by local groups, such as the Stonehenge tunnel and the Tonbridge-Pembury improvement on the A21. Some are old schemes resurrected, such as the dualling of the A358 so as to link the A303 with the M5 at Taunton. Others are schemes previously abandoned because of the unacceptable environmental impact, such as the improvements to the A27 in West Sussex (the press release says “subject to consultation with the National Parks Authority, local authorities and the publication of this and alternative options”; to put it another way, it won’t happen). Some of them, however, are just pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

A good example is a proposal to upgrade junction 10 of the M25 (right); the press release describes an “improvement of the interchange to allow free-flowing movement in all directions, together with improvements to the neighbouring Painshill interchange on the A3 to improve safety and reduce congestion”. It also calls that junction “the least-safe junction on the motorway network”. While it’s in a Tory safe seat, it would benefit people in Tory/Lib Dem marginals in south-west London, such as my own (Kingston and Surbiton) if it were ever completed. It’s true that this junction, which consists of a roundabout with slip roads leading to both the M25 and A3, which both flow freely below and above the roundabout, is a major cause of congestion and that queues leading up to it often stretch back a mile or two in all directions (particularly on the A3). However, there is a reason the junction was built like this, which is that the A3 at this point is not a by-pass but part of the old Portsmouth Road and has no alternative route. It carries pedestrians and cyclists as well as cars, has bus stops and direct accesses to properties including a hotel.

If you look at a detailed map, you will find that nearly all free-flowing motorway interchanges are with other motorways, not A-roads, including dual carriageways. All the M25’s junctions with A-roads are of the same type, i.e. the “three-level roundabout” with free-flowing roads above and below it, linked by slip roads (e.g., the A1, A12, A127, A13, A2 and A20). In theory, this means a cyclist can get across the junction without having to cross traffic entering the slip road, then have to use a windy flyover and then cross the fast-moving joining traffic. Without building an additional service road, it would be impossible to upgrade the Portsmouth Road to anything like motorway standard.

Also, the junction could not be remodelled on the same lines as current free-flowing motorway junctions without demolishing the current one, and that would raise the question of where all the traffic would go. The result would very likely be a gigantic interchange with a big hole in the middle, or two flyovers both built above the A3, so as to avoid interfering with the roundabout too much while the new junction is built. And any new junction would be vastly bigger than the present one (an advantage of the three-level roundabout junction is that they are smaller than other types of interchange), in an area where land prices are among the highest in the country; at least some of the land surrounding the junction appears to currently be used for public recreation, which is likely to cause public and environmental protest.

And improving this junction may, when (if) it’s completed, relieve the queues leading up to it, but it will not stop queues on the M25 itself backing up onto the A3 and may well lead to more people using that route rather than some local roads (the A309/A308 corridor from Hook to Staines in particular) which will add to traffic on the M25 and defeat the object of the whole scheme. I have not seen any detail of this scheme published yet, either on the Highways Agency website or on any news site, so I am not even sure if they have thought of what kind of junction to build. The most they could build is a couple of left-turn filter lanes. Anything else would be hideously expensive and take ages. This won’t happen.

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