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.

14 thoughts on “The Black Route: the right decision?

  1. The fact that such money can be wittered into oblivion , when their could or maybe such considerable cost reduction to not be even be considered ; to achieve the same result at far less nearly 2/3 rd less than the estimate of acceptance on original costing’s, is at least worrying if not suspect.
    I do feel that the Welsh Government has become too Anglicised in financial prudence to realise that if it looks like a rat , smells like a rat & moves like a rat . It must be a maggot !

  2. The right decision? Clearly not. As an FSB member I support the FSB’s stance on this. Perhaps it is being built to provide politicians with many opportunities to cut ribbons, have their photos taken in hard hats and have their names engraved on plaques. Wild life in the Gwent levels? Public , business, academic , resident opinion? The words rough and shod spring to mind.

  3. As a former student of Professor Cole, I would agree with some of his analysis and the need for public transport schemes to be funded. I cant however totally agree that the Blue Route would be the best option, as it runs the risk of making the same mistakes that befalled the routeing of the current M4 – in Newport and elsewhere in South Wales.

    Every transport scheme has a negative impact, from economic to environmental and financial, but these can be mitigated against or managed with good project management. (I would like to know if the likes of Friends of Earth and others who object to building on the Gwent Levels would similarly object if a new rail line was proposed, or a super cycle-highway over the same area.)

    My concern as a transport professional, a parent of children who i want to have the best opportunities to access jobs between South Wales and England, is that if we dont get it right now – and do things on the cheap, we will look back in 15 to 20 years and find it will cost £20bn to solve the problems.

  4. Isn’t it obvious that increased investment in public transport infrastructure and a lower cost, less damaging scheme is the correct way forward? Are the politicians in Cardiff Bay so wedded to the motoring & vehicle haulage lobby that they dismiss all other voices as irrelevant?

    Someone will get a hefty payday from this – and the taxpayers will foot the bill

  5. Ha, I heard some guy on Radio Wales complaining that the money should be used to encourage more businesses to move to north west Wales. Perhaps so. But not until the matter of language is sorted once and for all.

    No business will accept any extra cost no matter what unless, of course, it is a publicly funded business. Think on!

  6. The decision is crazy on so many levels. One thing it does allow for, of course, is the growing South East of Wales and West Country of England ‘regional’ link up. This will ensure that more English people working (and currently living) in Bristol, Bath, etc. can access cheaper Welsh homes, and other facilities. So its a win-win for people on the other side of the Severn Bridge. As for the people of Gwent: tough times, and long delays, ahead. A sad day for Wales!!!

  7. The Welsh Government keeps saying, ‘sustainable development is our central organising principle’ but I just can’t see it and can’t bear to hear it again. This decision seems to me to be unacceptable, a dereliction of duty and a slap in the face to the Environment Committee (whose Inquiry questions the Minister wouldn’t answer). How can they justify spending so much money on this one destructive project when electrification and the planned Metro will be aiming to take so much traffic off the roads anyway?

  8. Is it clear from the report what Edwina Hart’s reasons were for choosing the Black Route and rejecting the Blue Route?

  9. To think traffic will remain at the same levels 20 years from now is basically crazy. The M4 is already at breaking point a clogged artery into Wales. People will always take the fastest most convenient route and that is a high speed motorway in everybody’s books. In 20 years the only regret will be they didn’t make it 8 lanes. The only shame is that no route was identified that could by pass the levels as the area is so important and the fact it is protected makes a mockery of the system. Significantly important both naturally and archeologically should mean no transport minister should be able to touch it as it is protected for the people from ministers who don’t prioritise the environment. I’m pretty sure that an environmental challenge would win as the area is that critical to the surrounding environment and protection essentially means hands off chose alternative options. The growing docks issue will also be an important factor.
    I fear therefore that despite this decision eventually it will be another option that wins through and that will probably be a smaller road which will be insufficient and more delay. Not in my lifetime I fear and I’m in my 40’s!

  10. As Professor Cole states the need for this road is predicated upon the DfT model being correct, if a 30% increase in traffic occurs then the investment is a success. If as in the last 7 years there is no increase in traffic flows then a more restricted investment maybe sufficient.

    One thing that has suprised me with the management of the M4 around Newport is why junctions 25 and 27 have been allowed to remain when their original purpose had been superceded. Could they not be removed along with the slip roads at junction 27 leading into and out of the Brynglas Tunnels. A lot of the accidents on the road are caused by bunching as traffic is slowed by traffic leaving or joining the motorway and these junctions have only local importance now.

  11. It strikes me that it’s one hell of a long and expensive piece of tarmac to circumvent tunnels which are only about 400 m long.

    The one certainty is that Mrs Hart understands neither electical, mechanical no civil engineering. Indeed talking loudly seems to be the only thing she knows anything about.

  12. I am firmly in favour of taxing carbon and developing alternative energy sources. But the green future we need cannot depend on reducing people’s mobility. The future surely lies in electric lightweight vehicles and green electricity generation not everyone living and working one mile from where they were born. This basket-weaving and sandals image does the green cause harm. I don’t know whether the black route or the blue route is the good one but something needs to happen to improve the crumbling M4. Sorry guys but we can’t stop the world so you can’t get off. Let’s pick our battles.

  13. I see no reason why Blue Route would not resolve today’s issues on the M4. It seems a perfectly sensible suggestion to me.

    Assuming the £936m for the Black Route is actually found, building the Blue Route instead would make £556m available for improving public transport across the whole of Wales. That might be seen as leading the way towards a more-sustatinable future, whereas putting all £936m into one road would be an enormous step in the wrong direction as far as sustainablity is concerned.

    Private motorised transport needs to be reduced, that doesn’t mean reducing mobility if public transport is sufficiently improved.

  14. THe way I see it:

    Academia is in dispute with the DfT over traffic forecasts
    Consultants dispute the DfT’s current models for Cost benefit analysis

    Because of the complexity of the route I figure it costs between 5 and 10 times what the construction would over basic terrain.

    All this in an uncertain transport climate: the economic value of time in transport is in dispute (for modelling purposes), traffic levels in UK cities are falling.

    For the cost of it, this road appears to me to be a backward step and is way too risky to blow the bank. What is Wales settlement from Westminster: £16 billion or so? £1 billion leaves a big hole.

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