The Department for Transport’s (DfT) second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2) was published at the time of the recent Budget, committing to spend £27.4bn over the next five years on the strategic road network (SRN). The stated main priority is to maintain the existing roads. Only where existing roads are ‘simply not up to the job’ is the Government asking Highways England to develop wider, realigned or, in a few cases, wholly new roads to keep people and goods moving. Yet expenditure on maintenance is expected to be £12bn, whereas capital enhancements are worth £14bn.
Prioritising investment is based on the 2018 Road Traffic Forecasts, projecting growth on the SRN in the range of 29% to 59% by 2050. This suites the civil engineers of Highways England who see their main purpose as building roads. However, as I have argued previously, the DfT traffic forecasts are very problematic and have generally proved to overestimate outturn traffic levels. Moreover, as I noted in chapter 2 of my recent book, the rate of addition of lane-km to the SRN in recent years has been less than the rate of population growth, despite the high levels of spend.
It is therefore not surprising that average delays on the SRN have worsened during the RIS1 period, growing from 8.9 seconds per vehicle mile to 9.5 seconds per vehicle mile. The DfT’s ambition for performance at the end of RP2 is to be no worse than at the end of RP1. This is a very modest aspiration, and contrasts with the aim of the previous road investment strategy (RIS1) of a free-flow core network with mile a minute speeds increasingly typical.
The new ambition is consistent with the document’s recognition that it is ‘widely accepted that it is not possible to outbuild congestion across the whole of the road network’. Accordingly, investment is to be focused on congestion hotspots, so that average network performance will be at least as good in 2025 as it is in 2020. Yet, as I have pointed out, adding capacity induces more traffic, so tackling congestion hotspots has little impact beyond perhaps shifting congestion to another part of the network.
One odd feature of this and similar publications of Highways England, is the disregard of digital route guidance (Google Maps, Waze and others) that is in very wide use by drivers, because they find it of benefit in optimising routes under congested conditions and in estimating journey times. Roadside variable message signs are an outmoded technology, providing too little information, too late to be of much use.
There is picture of a route guidance app on page 38 of the RIS2 document, but no mention of its relevance. There is a statement that ‘During RP2 Highways England will work with Transport Focus [a consumer body] to investigate future opportunities to make more granular information about delay on the SRN publicly available. We anticipate that this might include reporting on a regional basis, journeys between conurbations, and maps showing delay across the network on a link-by-link basis.’ Highways England seems totally out of touch with the real world.
The RIS2 mentions the outcome of a number of earlier ‘strategic studies’ that now seem unlikely to lead to much. For the M60 Manchester NW Quadrant, it is concluded that the transformational options identified by the study would have significant adverse impacts on local people and communities, and overall would not provide value for money. The proposed Trans-Pennine Tunnel, improving the route between Manchester and Sheffield, seems unlikely to proceed. The Oxford to Cambridge Expressway project has been paused to look at other options.
In contrast, the A303 Stonehenge Tunnel is to go ahead. Yet the National Audit Office found that transport and economic benefits accounted for only 27% of total benefits; the value of cultural heritage, based on a survey asking people what they would be willing to pay to remove the road altogether, was put by the DfT at 73%, and yet this yielded a benefit-cost ratio of only 1.15 , which in the event is likely to be worse because cost overruns. The NAO noted that the DfT has no plan for the corridor as a whole, and that all the other projects on the route offered poor value for money.
This critique of the A303 route can be generalised to the RIS2 as a whole. Although it is entitled a ‘strategy’, in reality it is a construction programme that is deficient in both economic justification overall and indication of spatial impact of economic benefits. What benefits might we expect, and where? We are not provided with more than vague aspirations.