Today is the day that Mark Drakeford ends 5 years of ‘Welsh’ Labour prevarication and is widely expected to scrap the plans for the new M4 Newport Southern bypass. There will be loud criticism from the road haulage lobby and from local commuters, but also huge relief from the green lobby, and most importantly from Jane Hutt (our Finance Minister in case you were wondering).
The current M4 Newport bypass opened in 1966 as a dual two lane highway skirting the hillsides across the north of Newport and featured a first in the British motorway network – a twin bore tunnel at Brynglas. While the original motorway was perfectly adequate to cope with traffic demands of the day, it gradually filled up over the years and the latest widening was completed in 2009 to make most of the route dual three lanes, but it was not possible to widen the two-lane bottleneck caused by the Brynglas tunnels and it usually takes an hour or more to cross Newport on the M4 on a Friday night
To overcome this unavoidable bottleneck, an alternative route called the ‘Newport Southern Bypass’ was first proposed in 1991, following a route through the ecologically sensitive Gwent Levels via a new crossing of the River Usk. There was very little action until 2006 when the road was officially announced as going ahead, but then dropped again in 2009 during the Labour/Plaid coalition. The road scheme was then resurrected again in 2012 and a series of alternative schemes were looked at, until in 2014 the Transport Minister Edwina Hart confirmed that the so-called ‘Black Route’ would be chosen.
Since then the Welsh Government have prevaricated, delayed and simply avoided making a decision on the scheme – one way or another. Whatever decision was made would upset a lot of people so far better for the First Minister to bury his head in the sand and decide nothing – and meanwhile save £1.5 billion.
While there is widespread opposition to the new route on ecological grounds and cost, there is also a widespread view that to do nothing is unacceptable and will cause significant economic loss as well as ongoing inconvenience. But these arguments are always presented as binary alternatives – one or the other – and ignore a range of alternative options. These alternatives could include:
Trains & Buses
One often suggested alternative solution is investment in public transport and the proposed metro. While I fully support investment in the metro, this will have little impact on M4 traffic – put simply you can’t put an Irish Container truck on a local bus!
Southern Distributor Road
A simple way to reduce commuter traffic on the M4 itself would be to close the motorway to local traffic between J24 (the Coldra) and J28 (Tredegar Park) – and diverting all other ‘Newport’ traffic along the existing Southern Distributor Road. This route is already busy and would need upgrading – but at a fraction of the cost of the Southern Bypass.
A traffic congestion charge can then be applied to the remaining M4 traffic – develop an ‘intelligent toll’ system using the existing traffic cameras to charge motorists using the road during peak hours only – to discourage commuting and encourage off-peak travel.
New Bore Tunnel
A new bore tunnel could be added at Brynglas for around £250 million – with one two lane bore used for westbound, one two lane for eastbound – and the central bore used with one lane each way but reserved for high occupancy vehicles only (like they do in US).
Even with cost of additional approaches the total cost should be less than £400 – leaving £1000 to be spent on public transport and road schemes across Wales.
There is no Plan B
The measures given above could reduce peak M4 traffic flow through the Brynglas tunnels by around 25%, avoiding the need for costly and damaging bypasses, while keeping traffic flowing. But I suspect that Mark Drakeford will not make any alternative suggestions.
He will simply announce the scrapping of Plan A without having a Plan B.
We deserve better from our politicians and civil servants – but I am not holding my breath…..