The study into a lower Thames crossing, downstream of the Dartford bridge and tunnel, survived last month's wide-ranging review of the Government's trunk-road and motorway programme unnoticed.
Announcing the review, John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, said that he was axing two studies for controversial motorway links south and west of London. Cancelling work on the M3-to-M40 and Kent-to-Hampshire links 'puts paid to irresponsible scaremongering' by environmental groups about plans for a new, larger orbital motorway beyond the M25, he said.
But Mr MacGregor made no mention of the lower Thames crossing study, receiving its finishing touches from the consulting engineers, the Maunsell Group. It was referred to only briefly in an appendix of the roads review document.
The consultants' report is thought to focus on two corridors as the most viable routes on either side of Gravesend, north Kent. One is just two miles downstream from the Dartford tunnel and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge which take the M25 across the estuary. The other is another five to eight miles east.
Putting a stop to a new crossing - either a bridge or a tunnel - will be a top priority for environmental groups. If built, it would encourage more road traffic and could destroy a chunk of the capital's green belt.
The link also threatens the grazing marshes and mudflats of the outer estuary which, despite all the coastline's industry and development, remains one of Europe's most important waterbird habitats.
Some 200,000 wildfowl and waders overwinter there. Large expanses on either bank have been designated as protected areas under the European Union's birds directive and an
international treaty for conserving wetlands.
Sandy Toy, of the Government's nature conservation arm, English Nature, said: 'In bird terms, every superlative you can think of applies.'
Roger Higman, transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: 'It's definitely a threat. This link would encourage a further huge surge in traffic and wherever it went
it would do great environmental
But the proposed crossing has considerable support among local councils. Strongly favouring its chances are that:
A new crossing downstream from Dartford could boost development in the east Thames corridor along both banks of the estuary. The Government wants to attract new homes and businesses to this zone, which has areas of high unemployment and environmental blight caused by declining heavy industries.
Traffic is building rapidly at the Dartford tunnel and bridge toll crossings. There are already regular queues, even though the new bridge doubled capacity when it opened in 1991. In 10 years, the eight lanes of Dartford crossing could become a bottleneck.
Although it would cost more than pounds 100m the new link could readily be funded by the private sector rather than the taxpayer, with the construction costs being recovered through tolls. The private-sector consortium which leases the Dartford tunnel and bridge is making more money than expected because of the high traffic levels. It is forecast to have covered its costs and secured a profit by 2001.
Dr Robert Spink, the Tory MP whose Castle Point constituency includes Canvey Island, said: 'In south Essex we need to improve the transport infrastructure to secure real improvements to the economy, and the lower Thames crossing would be the single most important piece in the jigsaw.' Further inland, the proposed east London river crossing - which would have destroyed Oxleas Wood in Greenwich - and another crossing next to the two Blackwall tunnels, also in Greenwich, are both under
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