Plans to build two new Midland Metro tram lines, through Birmingham city centre and in the Black Country, have become the forgotten cause of the West Midlands transportation debate. A certain amount of hopelessness appears to be affecting a project that has been on the drawing board for 10 years or more and which, if Government sources are to be believed, stands little or no chance of being approved in the near future.
Paradoxically, given the protracted failure to approve the £300 million necessary to make the tram lines a reality, the Metro extensions press all of Whitehall's economic and environmental buttons.
The new routes offer a more sustainable form of transport, would undoubtedly take cars from congested roads and would open up parts of the Black Country for regeneration. As a report today by the Centre for Economic and Business Research shows, extensions to the existing single Metro route would create 5,300 jobs and boost the regional economy by £178 million a year.
And for those with the vision to look even further ahead, Phase 2 extensions from Birmingham city centre to Birmingham International Airport and linking Wolverhampton, Walsall and Wednesbury, would create 9,000 jobs and inject £330 million a year into the West Midlands economy.
There is, of course, one way in which the passenger transport authority Centro and local councils could make the Metro extensions happen. If they were to bow to the Government's crude attempt at blackmail and enter a bid for cash from the Transport Innovation Fund, in return for agreeing to implement region-wide congestion charging projects, they might find the money they need would miraculously become available. There can be no other explanation behind the Transport Minister's decision to link the Metro bid to the TIF - something that has already delayed the project by yet another year.
The economic benefits that would flow from a strategic Metro network across the West Midlands have been understood for more than 20 years. The environmental advantages in terms of reducing congestion on the roads serve to strengthen the case, making trams the number one transportation priority after New Street Station.
If the Government was serious about public transport, and discontinued the cowardly farce of requiring local councils to carry out its congestion charge dirty business, it would sign the Metro cheque without further delay.