The chances of a £180 million Midland Metro extension from Snow Hill to Five Ways received a major setback yesterday when the leader of Birmingham City Council refused to give the project his personal backing.
Asked whether he would afford priority status to building the route along Corporation Street and Broad Street if Government money became available, Mike Whitby said he would not answer a “hypothetical” question.
Speaking at a live video press conference in China, where he launched the council’s 30-year Big City Plan setting out the future expansion of Birmingham city centre, Coun Whitby was asked three times whether the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition he leads remains fully committed to the Metro route.
He replied each time that the matter was in the hands of the Government, which has been considering whether to pay for the new line since 2006.
Pressed on what he would do if the money arrived tomorrow, Coun Whitby replied: “We will do whatever is appropriate to take this city forward.”
Earlier this year council sources admitted consideration was being given to dropping most of the planned extension in favour of a far shorter section from Snow Hill to New Street Station, which could be funded chiefly by the private sector.
Taking the Metro on from New Street to Birmingham Airport and the NEC, rather than through narrow city centre streets to Five Ways, is emerging as a priority at the council.
Influential Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors argue privately that the airport link makes more sense economically and practically.
The Big City Plan falls short of giving absolute assurances about the Metro, which it says “might” or “may” be built.
One section of the plan is devoted to developing a bus rapid transit system as an alternative.
The document states: “While the transport and regeneration benefits of trams are well understood in many modern cities, the costs and practical issues surrounding their implementation are considerable. Bus rapid transit is an intermediate mode between buses and trams, with optional features such as better vehicles, enhanced priority through guideways and less frequent stops than conventional buses.”
West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority Centro believes both the Five Ways and airport routes are necessary along with other tram routes along radial roads.
Centro chief executive Geoff Inskip said: “The Big City Plan provides us with the ideal opportunity to look at connecting all rail stations to all parts of the city centre and take forward our plans to link Metro to the redeveloped New Street Station, Five Ways and to Birmingham International Airport, Quinton and Great Barr.
“We look forward to working with Birmingham City Council to take this ideal opportunity, through the Big City Plan, to bring these plans to fruition.”