Friday, February 22, 2008

Road To Somewhere

At first glance the building of a new piece of motorway is hardly something to get excited about.

While bridges and buildings can impress through aesthetic splendour or engineering brilliance, a motorway is rather more mundane. Not much more than a big slab of tarmac built purely for functionality.

Yet I was both excited and relieved when the Scottish Government finally gave the go-ahead for the M74 Completion project.

Excited, because the final five mile stretch of motorway is so glaring an omission from the Scottish road network that it beggars belief.

Relieved, because it has taken a scandalous fourteen years since the completion of the previous phase to commence work on this phase. By the projected completion date of late-2011 an incredible seventeen years will have elapsed.

Seventeen years! Children have been born, reared, educated, and left home in the time it takes us to build five miles of motorway.

Of course some of the delays were self inflicted, as the environmental lobby made full use of the legal and planning processes to attempt to prevent construction ever commencing.

As the legal battles unfolded I've lost a lot of respect for the environmental lobby. I'm all in favour of saving the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, boosting public transport links, etc.

I'm also well of the 'M25 effect' - that boosting capacity simply boosts demand - but on the M74 link the environmental lobby seems to have mistaken connectivity for capacity. The fact is that a key link that should exist does not, which forces thousands of vehicles each day to route along the M8, causing congestion, pollution, and mind searing frustration.

For over a year I was subjected to the 'M8 slog' on a daily basis. I hated it.

A work colleague, who was clearly a masochist, commuted daily from Edinburgh by car. He told me he felt unable to properly converse with anyone for an hour after arriving at work, as it took him that long to depressurise from the journey in.

Eventually we both resigned.

Were the government proposing to widen the existing M8 route to ten lanes wide in each direction, I'd be out chaining myself to a tree too. They are not. They are putting in a sensible alternative route.

I'm equally glad to see the Scottish Government is also pressing ahead with several other major transport schemes.

The relatively new Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) administration may have gotten lucky to an extent in that several schemes devised by the old Labour/Lib-Deb coalition were nearing fruition when they came to power, but I have been impressed by how they've chosen to implement them and the apparent speed with which they have set the wheels turning.

The Edinburgh Airport Rail Link was one such scheme. The SNP undoubtedly did the right thing in canning the original risky and potentially ruinously expensive 'tunnel under the runway' scheme in favour of a more austere overground scheme tied in to the new Edinburgh trams route.

The SNP weren't keen on the trams, but I am. I've yet to visit a city with a tram network that didn't impress me. Somehow trams feel more secure than buses. They are better suited to moving large numbers of people, and electric power is infinitely preferable to diesel in an urban context.

There's a nifty little promo video for the trams here.

The Glasgow Airport Rail Link falls into the same basket as the Edinburgh Airport link. A no-brainer that has taken far too long to move from the debating chamber to the construction stage.

The new kid on the block is the Forth Replacement Crossing. It's hard to think of a more compelling business case for a new bridge than 'the existing one is falling down', but it seemed to take a change of administration for this to sink in with our esteemed leaders.

The existing bridge will still likely be closed to heavy vehicles before the new one is complete, thanks to the interminable delays in getting the project off the ground. Ridiculous.

The tangible progress we are finally making should of course be seen as a positive development, but in reality the completion of all the above projects will merely bring our transport infrastructure up to a barely acceptable level.

Of the outstanding projects that I'd still consider essential, the easiest to justify has to be Glasgow Crossrail.

The cost (probably £300m+ at current prices) is actually comparatively modest in the context of the estimated £16 billion cost of the new London Crossrail scheme, or the whopping £100 billion of liabilities the UK Government has assumed on behalf of Northern Rock.

The benefits in terms of improved connectivity, capacity increases, and reduced journey times are undeniable. At a time when the local network is maxing out, this seems to be another no-brainer scheme.

When was it first proposed? 1968. FORTY years ago, and still not a solitary length of rail has been laid. Suddenly the M74 link seems almost supercharged.

It would be churlish to mock recent progress, but let's not kid ourselves. There's a very long journey ahead. One of the biggest obstacles on that journey will be the challenge of integrating transport policy more effectively with other policies.

More on that later.

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