Government officials are to help draw up plans to widen the A303 – a significant step towards finally ending one of the region’s most notorious bottlenecks.
Transport Minister Mike Penning is said to have given support “in principle” to dualling single lanes of the second main road between London and the South West, and committed civil servants to help pen a business plan.
Parts of the A303 suffer from bottlenecks because they are single carriageway, such as around Stonehenge. The problems worst in the summer and there has long been a campaign to upgrade it.
The road comes under chronic pressure when there are accidents on the alternative M5 into the South West. In November, a major crash on the motorway in wet, foggy conditions killed seven people and left 51 injured.
The details of the government help emerged following a meeting between Somerset County Council, business leaders and Mr Penning.
Somerset County Council deputy leader David Hall, a Conservative councillor, said: “Everyone knows the benefits to businesses, tourism and the local communities that modernising the A303 would bring.
“By having a strong and dedicated team locally we can put a proper business case to the Government to ensure the project goes forward. The Somerset Conservatives are committed to delivering this.”
Sam Crabb, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Somerset County Council, said campaigning had been cross-party, and he pressed the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable over road widening when he visited the county last month.
He said: “It is desperately needed. Once the M5 gets snarled up you need a second road into the South West, down to Devon and Cornwall and through Somerset.
“We are pretty sure it has gone up the Government’s list, and we didn’t get anything from the £9 billion of rail infrastructure announced recently.”
From east to west, the A303, A358 and A30 route is a bane for tourists and delays around Stonehenge in Wiltshire are notorious.
In January, council leaders and the Highways Agency agreed to take forward proposals to make more sections of the A303 dual carriageway, as well as the A358 and A30. The summit invited representatives from Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire and Plymouth councils as well as the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership.
While no formal bids have been submitted to the Department for Transport (DfT), an overhaul will not come cheap. In 2009, the now-abolished South West Regional Assembly heard that widening both carriageways from the M3 near Basingstoke in Hampshire to the M5 at Exeter would cost £2 billion.
But business leaders have estimated that the faster route would benefit the region’s economy by about £1.1 billion annually.
While it could precipitate a tourism-fuelled jobs boost, environmentalists say that dualling the road through the Blackdown Hills would desecrate sensitive landscape and habitat on the Somerset-Devon border.
There is money available for such a project. Chancellor George Osborne has pledged billions to invest into building schemes, and says it is now up to interested parties to put forward “shovel-ready” proposals.
A DfT spokesman said: “Roads Minister Mike Penning met recently with Somerset County Council and the South West Local Enterprise Partnership to discuss their proposals for the A303. He has pledged DfT’s support to help them develop their preferred deal and we look forward to engaging positively to better understand the issues involved and to help find the best possible solution.”
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