Darren Johnson details the problems with Boris Johnson's new plan to build a £700 million tunnel
Darren Johnson AM represents the Green Party in the London Assembly
From the media coverage of the Mayor of London’s proposed new Thames crossing at Silvertown, you will have been left with the impression that the choice is between a Boris tunnel, or a Ken bridge. The reality is that Londoners have a choice between a big new road and solving our chronic air pollution problems.
The current mayor wants to build a two lane tunnel next door to the Blackwall Tunnel. It is an old fashioned road building scheme that increases capacity and allows a lot more cars and lorries to travel through the same area. I will just list a few of the more obvious flaws in this idea.
London’s traffic is declining and has been for the last decade. People are switching to public transport as their preferred way of getting around. As the mayor himself says, if Londoners hadn’t made such a switch in the last eleven years there would be an extra million vehicle trips per day. So why are we building a new road to cope with less car trips?
The Silvertown tunnel was actually the second scheme in the queue, when Ken Livingstone was mayor.
The package of three river crossings put forward in his first term of office, included the Thames Gateway Bridge at Gallions Reach and the DLR extension.
It is worth considering that we now have the DLR extension to Lewisham, a cable car starting up in May, plus the east London extension has come south of the river and will soon be completing London’s orbital railway.
Crossrail will further increase that eastward penetration of public transport. Londoners’ ability to cross the river east of Tower Bridge have increased considerably, only you have to leave your cars at home.
Air pollution is already well over the European limits for NO2 throughout the area covered by the Blackwall Tunnel and its various feeder roads.
The previous mayor lost the support of the Inspector at the public inquiry (pdf) into the Thames Gateway Bridge partly because of the environmental arguments. The evidence about the health impacts of air pollution has grown even stronger in recent years and the failure of the Government to reduce pollution has become ever clearer.
Even if we accept the argument that the Blackwall Tunnel is a localised problem of too much demand and too little supply, then will a new tunnel, or bridge, do the trick?
Both the previous Mayor and the current one argue that there is suppressed demand from individuals and businesses in east London for more roads across the Thames.
TfL may well be able to argue that the jams at the Blackwall Tunnel are untouched by the seven per cent decline in London wide traffic since 2000, which could well be (on current trends) 15-20 per cent by the time the bridge is built.
However, there is a lot of research to suggest that if you build roads to relieve traffic jams, then after a few years they just clog up again and make bigger traffic jams. Is it worth spending £700 million to test that theory?
Where the money is coming from is of course the big question mark. The previous mayor was planning to toll (pdf) the Thames Gateway Bridge in order to provide most of the £450 million cost. Will the current mayor suggest doing the same for the £700 million Silvertown Tunnel?
The problem with tolling the new tunnel is that most people would simply avoid it and use the old one – as long as it was fairly free moving.
The only way of guaranteeing regular, substantial toll revenue is to toll the Blackwall Tunnel as well. That idea was quickly shelved when TfL suggested it as a way of paying for the TGB and I suspect that it won’t be one of the options mentioned in the forthcoming consultation.
The other ways of paying for the road, is either through the government giving London the extra cash, or TfL borrowing and paying it back out of general income, i.e. fares. I assume in these cash strapped times that the government won’t be paying for it all.
But if TfL is paying for it, then why a new road, instead of doing things like making the tube system accessible? £700m is more than double what this mayor has spent on cycling in the last four years. So, does the mayor want to annoy motorists with tolls, or hard pressed public transport users with fare increases paying for a new road? Tricky.
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