No road ahead for 78 traffic schemes

Transport: pounds 125m tunnel near Stonehenge survives, as dozens of building projects fall by the wayside in Whitehall
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The Independent Online
EIGHTEEN major road schemes were axed and plans for 60 more were shelved despite overwhelming public demand for highways and bypasses, the Government's roads review revealed yesterday.

Nearly 90 per cent of responses to the year-long consultation on the review were in favour of road-building but ministers opted to proceed with only 37 of the 125 possible schemes. Ministers pointed out that 75 per cent of the responses in favour of road-building were prompted by "strong local lobbying campaigns".

The review also angered environmentalists by giving the green light to widening the busiest section of the M25 London orbital road between junctions 12 and 15 near Heathrow airport, intensifying speculation that the go- ahead will be given for the expansion of Heathrow Terminal 5. The plans will see a short section of the highway expanded from 8 to 12 lanes.

"This nonsensical decision will make congestion to the west of London worse and eat up nearly pounds 95m that could have been spent on public transport," said Roger Higman, spokesman for the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

Ministers defended the decision, saying this section was "heavily congested" with 200,000 vehicles a day and that "more capacity is needed".

Other high-profile schemes to be given the green light included the two-mile Polegate bypass outside Eastbourne and a one-and-a-half mile cut-and-cover tunnel on the A303 near Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

John Reid, the transport minister, said one-third of the pounds 125m bill for the tunnel would be met by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports. "It is in recognition that Stonehenge has an international reputation as a beauty spot," he said. Ministers promised all 37 schemes in the pounds 1.4bn road-building programme would be started within seven years.

The review also included a number of radical measures aimed at easing congestion. Ministers are considering bus lanes and "multi-occupancy lanes" - which would be reserved for cars carrying more than one person - for the M25 motorway, to cut traffic jams.

Tolls, said Mr Reid, will play an important part in funding new road schemes. A pilot study will consider charging motorists to pay for a four- mile tunnel under the Devil's Punchbowl, a Surrey heathland which is home to many rare birds and plants.

Charges paid by motorists using the Dartford crossing in London, which amount to pounds 60m a year, will be switched early next century to funding road improvements after the crossing's development costs have been covered.

The Hull constituency of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of transport, will be a beneficiary of the review, with a pounds 53m improvement to the nearby A1033.

The roads lobby, however, said it was "disappointed" that the bulk of the schemes reviewed would be deferred or dropped. As well as the 18 schemes withdrawn from the national programme, a further 19 have been placed in the control of local highway authorities, and it will be up to them, or up to the new Greater London authority, to decide whether to take them forward as local schemes.

In addition, 44 schemes will be considered under the new appraisal method by Mr Reid. They will be reviewed by regional planning conferences as "transport problems requiring broad solutions, not necessarily road solutions".

Richard Diment of the BRF, which represents road builders, said: "The widening of the M25 is welcome, but the M6 and M1 have exactly the same congestion problems which could be alleviated by widening."

Edmund King, head of campaigns for the RAC, said: "The Government's integrated transport policy is in danger of bypassing roads due to severe cuts to the roads programme.

"The Government must remember that integrated transport includes roads; and buses, cars, cycles and trucks all have to run on the roads."

Among the schemes which have been axed are the A49 Hereford bypass and the M1 J10-J14 widening in Hertfordshire. "Trunk roads have a vital role to play in our transport system - but they cannot be looked at in isolation," said Mr Reid.

He said the review signalled an end to the old Tory policy of having a "wish list" of road schemes, many of which had no real hope of ever being built.

The Liberal Democrats said some towns and villages needed bypasses and these should have stayed in the programme.