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Underground motorway mooted to ease Birmingham congestion

The "super-tunnel" is one of a host of prospects put forward by Birmingham City Council to combat the full-to-bursting A38

How the Bristol Road might look if traffic were diverted away from the existing A38, either through an improved tunnel system or diversion on to the ring road

A giant super-tunnel the length of Birmingham city centre is one radical plan being considered to combat a rising tide of traffic.

The underground motorway is one of a host of prospects put forward by Birmingham City Council to combat the full-to-bursting A38 and free up vital development space.

The re-routing of the road is a major part of the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan (BMAP) white paper, set to be unveiled on November 13 but seen by the Post, setting out the city council’s 20-year vision for improving transport.

One of the key aims is to better connect the Jewellery Quarter to the city centre but also to free-up a huge swathe of prime land to boost employment.

The super-tunnel option – creating a new underground motorway similar to one in the US city of Boston – is just one of many options being looked into, but is the most radical.

 

It would be the most effective – and most expensive – means of tackling the problem of the A38, identified in the Big City Plan as a barrier to development and connectivity in the city centre. Other options being considered include joining up the existing St Chad’s and Queensway tunnels or simply filling them in and ushering traffic around rather than through the city core.

David Harris, transport policy manager at the city council, said the changes were part of an over-arching plan to offer more transport options and encourage people out of their cars.

He said: “It is about people, not vehicles, and better ways of moving people through the city. We want a walkable city. The A38, particularly where it comes out of St Chad’s tunnel, seems to create a massive barrier.

“Also in Great Charles Street there are better ways for movement between the city core and the Jewellery Quarter.

“Basically, we are saying there are options for the tunnels. Do you close them or join them up or close them and build new ones?

“Imagine Lancaster Circus with a big thoroughfare through it or Suffolk Street Queensway without an underpass. It can be quite a game-changer.”

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The A38 currently sees 85,000 traffic movements daily, around half of which involve journeys by people purely wishing to get from one side of the city to the other.

Although the cost of a super-tunnel or joining the existing tunnels up would be huge, both would drastically reduce the amount of traffic in the city centre and free-up land for development.

The least radical option would involve leaving the road network roughly as it is but removing some structures and investing in new bridges and other infrastructure developments to improve connectivity, as well as removing some traffic to the ring road.

However, at this early stage, Birmingham City Council said no options are being ruled out.

The city council has pointed to the success of the EU-funded Masshouse Circus development, which removed the eastern arm of the old inner ring road, as a good example of what ‘thinking big’ could achieve.

Figures show an initial investment of £28 million has resulted in more than £1 billion of investment in Birmingham and seen the creation of 7,000 jobs.

Simon Statham, associate director at the WSP consultancy, said development opportunities were huge.

He said: “Quite a big element of this is land value. The city centre is the most valuable land in our city.

“The more of that land we can use, the more value we can bring into the city centre.

“At the moment we are effectively using that land as an urban motorway.

“It is primarily about movement, about creating ways for people to get across the city, but also the land values that go with that.”

Mr Harris said that while some might question the wisdom of altering the A38, having recently renovated both the St Chad’s and Queensway tunnels, the project was part of a long-term vision

Mr Statham echoed the importance of planning for the future now and added: “If you don’t start thinking about and planning for that it will always be 15 to 20 years away.

“If we never think about the long-term nothing will ever happen in the short and medium term.”

Birmingham's St Chad's Tunnel on the first week day of its complete closure for summer 2014
Birmingham's St Chad's Tunnel on the first week day of its complete closure for summer 2014
 

And emphasising the current congestion on the A38, he added: “There are 85,000 trips a day on that road now. That is more than the M6 was originally designed for and twice as much as the M6 Toll currently carries.

“We think approximately half of that involves travelling from one side of city centre to the other and those are the trips we don’t want to be in the city centre if we can help it. We want to remove those trips, either through a tunnel or the ring road.

“We don’t want 85,000, we want a smaller amount in keeping with the type of road we would like to see.

“The least radical option would be a series of better bridges, crossings and improved connectivity but that leaves you with 80,000 vehicles on the road.”

As far as the super-tunnel option is concerned Mr Statham pointed to the success of the Boston Central Artery – known as the Big Dig – and said it was an example of the radical ways in which many international cities were trying to deal with traffic problems.

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He said: “Their urban motorway went underground. It brought about 200,000 vehicle movements a day under the city. House prices have risen by one billion dollars, it leveraged in 5.3 billion dollars of investment, generated 36,000 new jobs and created a new park two miles long.

“Something like that is a city-changing project. It is not something you take lightly and not something you do all in one go but until the city thinks about what it wants to look like in 15 to 20 years time nothing will change.

“This is giving us the opportunity to think big and to think radically about what we want to achieve and not letting the preconceptions spoil the ambition.

Mr Harris added: “A deeper tunnel could be a radical solution. If you don’t scope out all ideas get criticised because you haven’t been thorough enough. Some might not be realistic or achievable.

“It may well not be a tunnel from one end of the ring road to the other side but let’s take a look and see.

“You have to think around what are the options and work your way back through all different scenarios.

“To some people they might seem a little bit crazy but you put them all out there.”

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Coun Timothy Huxtable (Con, Bournville), former cabinet member for transport, said there was agreement something needed to be done about the A38, pointing to a feasibility study he commissioned in 2012 to look at the possibility of connecting the existing tunnels. “I would be pleased to see it being taken forward because I think the A38 does act as a concrete collar to development,” he said.

“You only have to look at Great Charles Street and the development on one side and dereliction on the other to see it has been acting as a barrier. We really do have to look at how we can better join up the Jewellery Quarter side of the A38 and the Colmore Business District.”

However, he also felt that an opportunity might have been missed, given the recent refurbishment of the tunnels.

He added: “If someone has come to a conclusion on the tunnels back in 2012 perhaps there was an opportunity to do all of the work in one go. The ideal time to do all the tunnel work would have been over the last two summers.

“If we want to do it again there is going to be massive disruption.

“With everything else going on in the city such as the Metro going down Broad Street, plans for a Metro route in the east of the city and all the work elsewhere, if we were to work on the A38 too where is all the traffic going to go? What I was always conscious of was to have a timeline so you didn’t have major works going on simultaneously that would disrupt each other.”

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