The Black Route: the right decision?

Stuart Cole responds to the Welsh Government’s announcement of a new £936m motorway around Newport.

On Wednesday, the Welsh Government announced their decision to build a new six-lane motorway to the south of Newport. Its intention is to relieve the congestion on the current M4 north of the city where there is general agreement on the need for extra road capacity. Morning and evening commuters have seen regular delays at the pinch point between junctions 24 and 27.

The Economic Assessment released by the Government yesterday to complement their decision does not appear to give evidence that the so-called ‘Black Route’ will create investment and jobs. New roads are a pre-requisite but not a guarantor of inward investors bringing employment. The two-way road may indeed be a threat to smaller, local businesses out because larger distribution centres nearer markets bring economies of scale

Despite this, easier car commuting into Cardiff and Newport  “will deliver clear benefits for businesses and commuters’.

The Government’s integrated transport policy requires consideration of compatible and complimentary options as one, which then determines the allocation of expenditure to the best solutions. Yet, in this instance integration has been specifically excluded. The consultation document, which the Minister partly based her decision on states:

‘This draft Plan does not include public transport measures because the Welsh Government has commissioned a separate study and report on proposals to develop a metro system for South East Wales’

Peak traffic congestion arises mainly from private car journeys. Consequently, to get a real assessment, the traffic forecasts should take all public transport options into account by evaluating road, Metro, rail bus lane and park & ride options. The £2 bn Metro funding intends to remove traffic from the roads – otherwise why else would a Metro be built. Surely this should be inbuilt into any traffic forecast?

In November 2013 I outlined an alternative to the Welsh Government’s Black Route, a Blue Route scheme, published by the IWA, which set to upgrade the existing steelworks road around Newport, at a cost of £380m compared to the estimated Black Route costs of £936m. Funding for this scheme will come partly from a specific payment from the UK Government (despite roads expenditure being devolved and thus expenditure decisions are made in Wales) but mainly from other borrowing or through the block grant. The Welsh Government will soon have new borrowing powers yet HM Treasury will set a borrowing limit. This limit will determine what other transport schemes throughout Wales could be built – many town by passes (e.g. Newtown, Rheadr), major schemes such as dualling the A40 in Pembrokeshire, the A55 improvements the A465 dualling at Hirwaun or rail electrification in the valleys and north Wales. Indeed, an expenditure such as the one required for the Black Route is set to maximise all borrowing powers.

The government forecasts use a DfT model, which has received considerable criticism because it excludes assumption elements such as change in lifestyle, switch to rail commuting and fuel cost increases. Experienced transport economists therefore see considerable uncertainty. The M4 vehicle flow has hardly changed since 2006 and the predicted recent year’s growth has not occurred. It appears therefore that the scale of this new road is too big and that the more modest Blue Route or similar should be considered.

The forecast capacity of the new motorway assumes an increase of 40% in current traffic. The published forecast shows a 20% growth in traffic by 2030 – a level that the Blue Route can accommodate. In addition the electrification can on comparison with elsewhere be expected to take conservatively 15% – 20% of commuter traffic.

The timings for opening of the two options here are based on a process of detailed design, planning, consultation and judicial review possibilities and construction. The likely timing for the Blue Route is 2019 because it is contained mainly in the existing road footprint and environmental concerns are minor. The government suggests 2021 for the Black Route but this is is a new build and even assuming funding is forthcoming (and not at the expense of other transport schemes throughout Wales) these processes can take up to 20 years to complete.

The business community is also split three ways on the decision between those who believe the cheaper route will be effective, those supporting the bigger scheme and those who believe more analysis of a lower cost, less environmentally damaging scheme should have been included.

Delays to existing traffic will occur on both routes. Part closures of the A48 but with Steelworks road currently attracting low levels of traffic the Blue route would not incur extensive delays. The construction of very large structures at Magor (J23) and at Castleton (J29) will produce lane closures such as those experienced at Cardiff Gate ten years ago.

The decision has been made but previous decisions have been reversed both to build and to cancel this particular investment. It is now time to build but given the financial and traffic forecast implications has the right decision been made?

Professor Stuart Cole CBE is Emeritus Professor of Transport for the Wales Transport Research Centre at the University of South Wales.

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