Robert Key, the roads minister, said that the project in Staffordshire and Cheshire would benefit motorists and the environment by allowing traffic to flow freely, cutting pollution levels.
His comments were denounced as flawed logic by transport groups and environmentalists, who believe that the expansion, costing pounds 10m a mile, will encourage more vehicles on to the motorway and create a vicious circle of congestion.
Under the proposals, a new four- lane carriageway will be built alongside the existing motorway between Saredon in Staffordshire and Lymm, just south of Manchester.
When the parallel road is complete, all traffic from one carriageway of the M6 will be permanently diverted on to it. The empty stretch of motorway will then be rebuilt to carry four lanes of traffic travelling in the opposite direction. Two of the three redundant lanes from the original motorway will be spare capacity to be used during roadworks, or by emergency vehicles. The third lane, farthest from the new roads, will be planted with trees and landscaped to screen residential areas.
The scheme has been prepared to cause minimal disruption to the 90,000 vehicles which use the stretch of motorway daily.
No date has been set for work to start, as the proposals have to complete statutory procedures, including a public inquiry. However, Mr Key is keen for construction to be complete by 2000, as this would assist Manchester's bid to host the Olympic Games.
Yesterday he said that the scheme was needed to cope with the constantly growing levels of traffic. 'It is vital for individual motorists, for the towns and villages of Staffordshire and Cheshire, and for the economic well-being of the country that the M6 copes with this extra demand. Keeping traffic flowing freely means an actual reduction in pollution levels. That has local and global implications for the environment.'
Mr Key's enthusiasm for roads has attracted criticism from environmentalists, who believe the Government should encourage better use of public transport while deterring car use through higher fuel taxes and road pricing. At the weekend he was reported to have told a reception he 'loved roads,' and claimed railways were the most environmentally unfriendly form of transport. Lynn Sloman, assistant director of the lobby group Transport 2000, said: 'We will get more cars using the road, so there will be more congestion and more pollution.'
Tony Burton, senior planner with the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said that the M6 scheme was further proof of a government bias towards roads.
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