The UK Government has announced a substantial programme of road repairs and construction. While the case for repairs is strong, will the proposed new construction represent value for money? A recent evaluation of 58 ‘major schemes’ implemented by the Highways Agency found time savings to road users at peak usage of only three minutes on average. The Department for Transport’s appraisal methodology multiplies small time savings by a large number of drivers and a standard value of time to generate acceptable benefit-to-cost ratios. But such benefits are notional and the impact in the real economy is unclear.
The most congested parts of the trunk road network are adjacent to population centres, where local traffic impedes long distance traffic. Road improvements permit expansion of the former, the latter gaining little. It remains the case that we can’t build our way out of congestion.
Targeted transport investment can certainly have substantial economic benefits, witness the regeneration of London’s Docklands made possible by investment in the rail network. But the Government’s intention ‘to build all Highways Agency road projects’ seems unlikely to result in commensurate observable economic benefits. We need a fresh look at the economic case for road investment.