Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Tunnel Vision - Renewed calls for an M4 Newport bypass

The severity of yesterday's fire shouldn't be underestimated,
however the M4 bypass plan refuses to die.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

For the second time this year, the Brynglas tunnels closed due to a vehicle fire, causing massive disruption in and around Newport and beyond. Yesterday's fire seemed to be far more serious than previous ones. Mercifully, nobody was killed or seriously injured, but the pictures and videos clearly indicate that could've easily been a different story.

Predictably (and harking back to my post on Wales's lack of perspective) there have been calls - by business leaders like David Rosser of the CBI and William Graham (Con, South Wales East) - to resurrect the M4 bypass around Newport.

To quote MH at Syniadau, it's a case of "taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is overkill."

Accidents happen. However frustrating closures of the M4 are, it doesn't warrant a £1billion+ PFI scheme combined with a (possible) double-toll on entering Wales. What message is that going to send to business, commuters and visitors?

If the Brynglas tunnels close due to a fire, that suggests that they need some sort of sprinkler system (to put out fires before structural damage takes hold, and enable quicker clear-ups) which would cost significantly less than £1billion, I presume. In addition, there are probably several more road schemes just as important to the Welsh economy that don't get enough attention because of this notorious pinch point - including completing the Cardiff Peripheral Distributor and widening the Britannia Bridge.

Here's a suggestion. Tell business leaders they can have the bypass. However, only if they are willing to pay for it through hikes in business rates for M4 corridor companies, surcharges on office parking spaces as well as shouldering a big chunk of the PFI debt.

The National Transport Plan has gone largely unappreciated and unnoticed (with the exception of the likes of Syniadau). The previous Welsh Government were right to abandon the Newport bypass. They were also right to introduce variable speed limits and improve the A48 and Llanwern road - hopefully taking more local traffic off the M4.

These are perfectly sensible bang-for-buck projects that fiscal conservatives would otherwise be praising if it were not for the recession, which has reduced everything to zombified, frothing at the mouth "Must! Pwomowte! Gwowff!"

Progress on the crucial Llanwern/Magor improvement has been depressingly slow. That project clearly needs to step up a gear (excuse the pun). At the moment, the Welsh Government are going through one of those tiresome "consultation processes" which are expected to last into early 2012.

Not good enough.

In the longer term, providing more public transport options in and around Newport - including new railway stations, park and rides and bus corridor improvements - are also required. Of course, all this requires capital spending and there's precious little of that about. But "business leaders" seem to think the Welsh Government can magic £1billion out of their backside at their beck and call.

It's said that the M4 is one of south Wales's coronary arteries. A fair analogy. Yesterday's fire should serve as the heart attack that prompts lifestyle changes. Invasive heart surgery is something everyone should want to avoid, and quite often, never solves the underlying problems.


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