A freeze on borrowing has put the breaks on plans to link up the Queensway and St Chad's tunnels, Birmingham's transport chief has revealed.
Coun Tahir Ali revealed that the long term ambition of the city council to join or extend the tunnels was currently dead in the water.
A string of reports and studies, including one last year by transport consultants Atkins, have suggested major economic benefits from further breaking the ‘concrete collar’ of the inner ring road.
Both Council leader Sir Albert Bore and former Conservative council leader Mike Whitby have stated an ambition to link the tunnels.
Not only would it create pleasant pedestrian routes between the city centre and the Jewellery Quarter across a new Great Charles Street boulevard, it would also free up land for development.
But the economic downturn and pinch on council finance, in particular the Government’s crackdown on councils raising capital funding for major developments, mean the plans have been shelved.
Coun Ali (Lab, Nechells) said that is why they have gone ahead with the tunnel refurbishment.
“Eric Pickles (commmunities secretary) will not let us borrow the money and our budget is being cut every year. We can’t do it.
“If the highways PFI contract with Amey had not been signed it is doubtful we would even be carrying out this refurbishment.”
Last year Atkins put three options on the table. The first plan, at a cost of £85 million, proposed demolishing St Chad’s tunnel and extending Queensway to Livery Street – opening up land for development to offset the cost.
The second option, at £64 million, was to join the two tunnels creating a continuous link from Lancaster Circus to Suffolk Street – although safety risks would need careful consideration.
And third was spruce up the tunnels as they are – which is what Amey, under the terms of its existing PFI contract is doing over the next two summers.
Amey is carrying all the risk as part of the £330 million five-year investment in upgrading the city’s roads, pavements and street lighting.
The tunnels, like the old New Street Station, are a grotty reminder of Birmingham’s 1960s heyday and way past their best, and are also a grim introduction to the city for visitors.
The white walls, last painted during the 1990s, are caked in the black pollution pumped out by 18 million cars which travel through each year.
And, at 40 years old, they have also fallen behind with European safety standards – there should be solid walls separating the carriageways in case of fire and ease evacuation in case of emergency.
They are still structurally sound, so officials are planning two summers of major refurbishment – the first since they opened.
Highway network manager for Amey Eddie Fellows said: “We will be doing structural maintenance work and structural alterations.”
He explained that the two ‘bores’ or carriageways must be separated, so the gaps between concrete pillars will be filled in and the walls given a fire retardant coating.
The dazzling fluorescent light tubes will be replaced with more energy efficient LED lighting – which as well as cutting the council’s electricity bill are less likely to need replacing as frequently.
And most surprisingly the walls are to be painted in ‘magnolia’, the bland colour once loved by interior decorators and now widely loathed.
“We are giving them a new lick of paint. Magnolia works well with the lighting,” Mr Fellows explained.
Next summer will see a second six week closure to allow for works to the electronics, mechanics and engineering – including replacement or refurbishment of the giant extractor fans which pump the petrol fumes away.
New emergency call boxes, control and security systems will also be installed, meaning motorists will not find their radios or mobile phone signals dropping out.
All this means the tunnels will be closed for six weeks solid from July 19 – despite it being the school summer holiday period when there is 20 per cent less commuter traffic on the road – there are still fears that the city centre could be grid locked.
That is why the city council, rail and bus companies and transport authority Centro are launching a major campaign to encourage commuters to get out of their cars.
As well as information on existing services, new park and ride facilities are being set up and bus priority measures put in place.
Coun Tahir Ali, the Labour cabinet member in charge of transport, urged travellers to use alternative transport.
He recognised that already a single bump, shunt or breakdown in or around the tunnels can bring the entire city centre road network to standstill – but added: “This is a planned closure, not something unexpected like a car accident, people can plan ahead.
“I would urge everyone who regularly drives to the city centre, particularly at peak times, to consider alternatives.”