New hope for A303 widening scheme
The Government is considering giving the long-awaited go-ahead to widening the second main road between London and the South West in next week's Budget.
The Western Morning News understands plans to improve sections of single carriageway on the A303 sit close to the top of a Whitehall list of priority road-building schemes.
A splurge on new highways could form the centrepiece of Chancellor George Osborne's financial statement on Wednesday.
From east to west, the A303, A358 and A30 route is a bane for tourists and business, and delays around Stonehenge in Wiltshire are notorious – especially when the main M5 arterial road is closed.
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The scheme would come with a massive price-tag, and it remains unclear which sections could be backed.
Widening both carriageways from the M3 near Basingstoke in Hampshire to the M5 at Exeter has an estimated cost of £2 billion, and a two-mile tunnel under Stonehenge alone has an estimated £600 million cost. Dualling the A303-A30 between Ilminster and Honiton would cost £100 million.
Tim Jones, chairman of the Devon and Somerset Local Enterprise Partnership, the business-led group charged by the Government to boost jobs in the region, suspects ministers will launch a competition to find road-building schemes to back with state funds.
It follows conversations with ministers, and the postponement of a summit between Transport Minster Stephen Hammond and the region's business leaders over the project that was delayed "for the right reasons", Mr Jones said he was told.
Giving road schemes the go-ahead squares with speculation surrounding the annual financial statement. The Government is keen to press ahead with projects that provide instant construction jobs to boost the sluggish economy. At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron said the Government should "spend more money on capital" and they should be "using the strength of the Government balance sheet to encourage private sector capital".
"We are investing in the country's infrastructure," the Prime Minister added. Last year, the Western Morning News reported the Department for Transport had committed civil servants to help pen an A303 business plan.
Mr Jones said: "Plans for the route have been in the top drawer for a long time. And at a time when the Government needs infrastructure projects that can be delivered in short order, this is relatively simple.
"There are bits of the road that have been done to death. If they are looking for 'shovel ready' projects, this is looking quite promising."
Parts of the A303 suffer from bottlenecks because they are single carriageway, such as around Stonehenge, and the number of roundabouts also causes logjams.
Business leaders say a faster route would benefit the region's economy by about £1.1 billion annually.
But environmentalists argue sensitive landscape and habitat on the Blackdown Hills on the Somerset-Devon border risks being destroyed, which could be the stumbling block to getting the green light next week.