Somerset Chamber Chief Executive Stephen Henagulph has welcomed confirmation of the preferred route for the new A358 dual-carriageway between Taunton and Ilminster, but urged caution as there is still no timescale in place for the upgrade to be carried out.
Speaking on BBC Somerset this morning (Friday, 28 June), Mr Henagulph said anything which improved journey times to Taunton and the M5 from the A303/A358 corridor was to be welcomed.
But he warned there was still a lot more work to do before the promised upgrade became a reality.
“I would be delighted to be driving down the new dual carriageway on the A358 in three years’ time, but realistically we’ve seen it all before.
“When I met the Secretary of State for Transport earlier this year all he kept saying is ‘it’s a priority’. My concern is that there are no specific dates on any of this.
“It’s a seven-stage process to plan, build and open the upgraded road – we’re not quite at stage three and there are no dates against any of the other stages,” Mr Henagulph said.
The preferred route proposal was announced by Highways England on Thursday (27 June) and while proposals for a new motorway junction have been dropped, a bypass around Henlade has been included.
According to Highways England, the upgrade is scheduled to take place during the Government’s next road investment period between 2020 and 2025.
Mr Henagulph said: “While I’m delighted these plans are coming through, we know we need a second major artery into the county and the South West and I’m hesitant because the A358 is just one part of a much bigger picture.
“There are eight other dual-carriageway upgrade schemes along the A303 which lead to the A358 and while three may go ahead, the other five still have to have decisions made on them.
“It’s not going to improve things if the road on the other side of the A358 is still a single carriageway, although anything that can help businesses get from Southfields to the M5 quicker has to be good news – but it’s only one bit.”
Mr Henagulph has already called for the A303 and A358 to be upgraded as a single project, not in piecemeal developments, to ensure businesses feel the full benefit of the improvements.
He said he remained frustrated the upgrades were being looked at as eight individual schemes with just three earmarked to be progressed in the current funding round.
He said: “To undertake some of the dualling of the A303 and not deliver all the necessary projects/program of works doesn’t make sense from a simple engineering perspective let alone a cost rationale.
“If a single carriage way connects to a section of dual carriageway and then reverts to single carriageway the road at either end will not cope with the flow of traffic at peak capacity.
“Put in simple flow metrics, the water feed to your house enters via a 15mm pipe. Regardless of how large the pipework inside the property is, the water arrived via a 15mm feed pipe.
“If the water, then leaves via 15mm pipe the flow rate remains constant. The challenge has not been fixed, you have simply moved the problem up or down the pipe!”
Mr Henagulph said he was concerned about the impact the piecemeal improvements would have – and remained doubtful as to whether any of them would, ultimately, go-ahead at all.
He added: “Based on current levels of national commitment and the focus on other regional areas and projects I’m starting to believe we will not receive the infrastructure investment the county and South West deserves.
“Businesses based in and around these roads in Somerset and beyond talk of their frustration of ever-increasing daily traffic build up and delays. They are frustrated by the years and years of delay in making strategic transportation and road infrastructure decisions at national level.”
His comments came after highways bosses said they remained committed to upgrading three sections of the A303 and A358 – but warned one of the three projects had already been delayed and another five remained on the backburner.
Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary to the Department for Transport, said the Government did not believe it was necessary to dual the entire length of the A303 in one go. She said the section between Sparkford and Ilchester and then the A358 between Taunton and Southfields, together with the Stonehenge upgrade and tunnel, remained on the cards.
The A358 upgrade is already a year behind schedule and costs have increased massively, but Highways England remain adamant the road will be upgraded and open to traffic by 2024.
The five schemes which are not being pushed forward at the moment include South Petherton to Southfields, the Cartgate Roundabout, the Podimore Roundabout, Chicklade Bottom to Mere and Wylye to Stockton Wood.