DEBATE has raged for years, decades even, about what should be done to the M4 around Newport.
Last Tuesday’s traffic jam, which delayed tens of thousands of motorists and brought the city centre to a standstill, was caused by two lorries colliding in the Brynglas Tunnels. It is only one of a very long list of long traffic jams on the motorway.
Cllr Matthew Evans, head of the Conservative group on Newport City Council, said in the wake of the lorry crash and the traffic troubles: “This has to change. The Welsh Government really needs to grab the bull by the horns now.”
He said it had to change Newport’s “unenviable reputation of being one of the UK’s bottleneck hotspots.”
The Labour group on the council says it is equally as keen to move on the M4 development.
The leader of Newport City Council, Bob Bright, said: “I really do think we need to do it now. We have to come to some conclusions and work towards it. Then we need to go through the tick lists and the problems, the finance. We need to get on with it and get on with it quickly.
“The only problem is the funding issue. It’s inextricably linked to the Welsh Government’s ability to raise funds and tax-raising powers.”
And even 12 years ago, Mr Bright was banging the drum for the M4 relief road. He said the M4 was an “escalating problem” which needed to be addressed.
A comment left on the South Wales Argus’ website in the wake of the traffic problems must have spoken for many motorists or passengers whose journeys had been disrupted: “How much longer? For God’s sake get on with it!”
Simon Williams of the RAC said: “It is a worrying state of affairs when a relatively minor motorway incident causes so much disruption to everyday life in the South Wales community. Clearly more needs to be done to make sure this does not become a daily occurrence.”
Figures released by the Welsh Government and engineers Arup as part of their consultation on the M4’s expansion plans showed between 62,000 and 95,000 vehicles use the road between 7am and 7pm every day.
The city also has the biggest proportion of motorway in Wales in comparison to the country’s 21 other counties: 19 per cent of Wales’ motorways are contained in Newport.
Last month Newport City Council said it would “broadly” support two of the three proposals from the Welsh Government – but councillors said they were concerned about the possible environmental impact on the Gwent Levels.
It said it would support the ‘black’ route, its first preference, and the ‘purple’ route, both of which propose the building of a three-lane motorway between junction 23 at Magor and junction 29 at Castleton. A third ‘red’ option was not accepted because it would not have reduced traffic problems.
The chancellor, George Osborne, supports the plan to build a relief road, too. On a trip to Cardiff in March last year, he said there is no way a new road will ever be tolled – he said the media had “misreported” on that. He said he “only wanted to improve the M4” and was working with the Welsh Government to do so.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We are currently considering the responses to our consultation on improvements to the M4. We will report on findings and next steps once this review is complete.”
An alternative was proposed with University of South Wales academic Professor Stuart Cole’s blue route. The plan has been supported by the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA) and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.
The plan involves improving and widening the Southern Distributor Road (SDR) to the south of Newport, which was opened to traffic in December 2004.
The Institute for Welsh Affairs (IWA) has said upgrading the SDR and building another road through the city’s former steelworks is an “affordable” £380 million alternative to the Welsh Government’s plan, which could cost more than £1 billion.
Another opponent to a new road, the Wales Green Party’s leader Pippa Bartolotti, said: “The road structures aren’t good.
“(The blue route) is my favoured option. There will be no impact on ecology and my argument would be also if it was properly thought out, we wouldn’t be in this position now.”
She said she was also “disappointed” the Welsh Government did not seek views on improving public transport as part of its consultation on the motorway, which was conducted from September 23 until December 16 last year.
She said: “Most of it is inadequate. People are being forced to use the roads because of the public transport service – which should be used a matter of principle. We need to cut down emissions.
“They are making an assumption that car growth in vehicular traffic will increase as it has done in the past but in fact if you look at some of the American figures road users have tended to decrease.”
Similarly, that is true in Wales. Welsh Government statistics show motor traffic peaked in 2007; by 2012 there was 4.4 per cent less traffic than in 2007. It rose by 12.4 per cent between 1999 and 2007.
Conservationists are also keen for the blue route to be used.
James Byrne, the landscapes manager for Wildlife Trusts Wales, said: “There would be a large negative impact on the Gwent Levels. The blue route will be completed by 2018 and will not have a similar impact on the Levels.”
He said it is though there will be “direct impact” on 100 hectares of land around the Levels which could be built on for a new road, the “indirect impact” could be far greater because of pollution and the risk of possible flooding.
While he also talked of £76 million of “flood protection and other benefits”, the Gwent Levels would be “eroded” if a motorway was built on or near it.
Yet a poll run on the South Wales Argus’ website showed its readers are considerably in favour of a new relief road rather than the blue route. From 678 votes, 470 people, or 69 per cent, said they wanted a new road.
Meanwhile, Edwina Hart, the Welsh Government’s economy minister, has said the blue route, which was not included in the consultation, will now be studied as a possible alternative to a relief road.
And so the wait for a solution goes on.