Highways England has been branded “not fit for purpose” after it emerged it could have eased a day of total gridlock on West Midlands motorways last month by opening the M6 Toll Road for just £300,000.
The figure is in stark contrast to the total lost to the region’s economy because of the 24-hour traffic mayhem which experts put at £40 million in total.
They said the region was losing the equivalent of £1.7 million for every one of the 24 hours the M6 was closed for resurfacing after a fatal crash between junctiosn 5 and 6 on February 4.
City councillor Paul Tilsley (Lib Dem, Sheldon) revealed the toll road could be opened for an agreed compensation payment of £300,000 to owner Midland Expressway – but, crucially, agencies decided against doing this.
Details of the arrangement, called Operation Freeway, emerged at a meeting of the West Midlands Police and Crime Panel as they discussed the inquiry into the road closure and response of emergency services .
The inquiry has already found a dozen failings by Highways England which hindered the response and extended the closure to a full day.
It had previously been widely believed the Toll Road could only be opened up in a major emergency.
Coun Tilsley said: “It is clear we have here a national Government agency which does not give a monkeys about the West Midlands. It is not fit for purpose.
“The £300,000 it would have cost to open the M6 Toll is paltry compared to the millions Highways England spends on roadworks every day and tiny compared to the cost of motorway closures to our economy.”
The inquiry report stated that Highways England bosses considered opening the M6 Toll Road but decided that it would not have made a significant difference to the congestion at the time.
But Coun Tilsley added: “This road was designed as the Birmingham North Relief Road, every extra car which used it would have given extra relief to those queuing on other roads.”
Highways England, which has agreed to play a full part in the West Midlands Police Commissioner’s inquiry into the road closure, said that the subject of whether opening the toll road would have helped is part of the investigation.
A spokesman said: “We are sorry for the delays experienced following the incident on the M6 on February 4.
“We take safety extremely seriously and we learn from every road accident we attend, and this one is no exception.
“We work hard to minimise delays and we do all we can to reopen roads as soon as it is safe to do so following incidents. The question of whether opening the M6 Toll would have eased the situation is part of the ongoing investigation we are holding into this incident.
“We will be participating in the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner’s hearing on March 18 to help ensure lessons are learnt and we work as closely as possible with the emergency services and other partners in future.”
The leaked report by Highways England found that the response to the M6 crash on February 4 was beset with mistakes.
Crews were stuck in traffic and the fuel spill which prompted the resurfacing was not reported until more than five hours after the crash.
Solihull MP Julian Knight is also meeting transport ministers to push for the toll to be lifted during periods of acute disruption.
He said it would reduce journey times for motorists whilst also easing congestion and making it easier for emergency vehicles to access the motorway.
Less congestion would also lead to fewer cars idling their engines and less air pollution, the MP says.
He said: “I have been in discussions with ministers about opening the M6 Toll to general traffic at exceptionally busy periods. This would be a very positive move for local motorists.
“Such a scheme could be overseen by the new West Midlands Combined Authority, which could assume responsibility for opening the relief road.
“I have consulted with local businesses and councillors, and look forward to working with them to take this idea forward.”
Last year, the new West Midlands Combined Authority proposed buying capacity on the M6 Toll to ease congestion and there have been frequent calls for it to be nationalised but neither has yet been taken up by Government.
Last month the loss-making toll road was put up for sale , with a £2 billion price tag, by the owner.