Major fears have been raised that the lifting of tolls on the Severn Crossing and the huge increase in traffic will cause a big bottle neck at Newport’s Brynglas tunnels where the M4 is reduced to two lanes, The Eye can reveal.
It is understood that significant concerns exist at a senior UK Government level that the present congestion will worsen, and motoring organisations have condemned the growing crisis.
In January last year the UK Government admitted: “Research indicates that the reduced toll charges will result in some increased traffic – of around 17% by 2028″.
But increased traffic over the Severn Crossing (soon controversially to be named The Prince of Wales Bridge) could be caused much earlier once the tolls are scrapped completely next year, yet an M4 relief road to the south of Newport is highly contentious.
It will take years to complete, and is not now due to be fully operational before 2023, even if it is approved.
A public inquiry for the relief road finished in 2017 and its findings are expected before the end of the year.
Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation told us: “The Brynglas tunnels have long been a source of frustration for users of the M4.
“Even without the removal of the tolls at the Severn Crossing, it is going to take more than the smartest of “smart” technology to achieve free-flow at Brynglas, given that according to at least one official forecast traffic across Wales could be set to rise by as much as a third by 2030.
“Motorists queuing at this notorious bottleneck will be hoping for some positive news soon about the Newport relief road, following last year’s lengthy public inquiry.”
Proposals to relieve the enormous traffic congestion at the Brynglas tunnels were first put forward 25 years ago.
Today they include a £1.3 billion scheme for a 15-mile (24km) motorway and six-lane bridge over the River Usk to ease the bottleneck.
The Welsh Government (WG) has backed the most expensive option known as ‘the black route’, but this could all change after the race ends to succeed Carwyn Jones as First Minister of Wales.
Mark Drakeford is seen as the favourite to take over from Mr Jones, and does not support this preferred option.
He describes himself as “the unity candidate” and is now the Finance Minister but was formerly the controversial Welsh Health Minister in charge during the crisis at a mental health unit in Ysbyty Clwyd called Tawel Fan.
Mr Drakeford said money set aside for the black route “would be there for other possibilities if the local public inquiry were to propose that a better solution was available and that eventually came through the government’s consideration”.
Plaid Cymru also backs a cheaper alternative, known as the ‘blue route’ and in December, the party’s MP Jonathan Edwards said they would oppose the black route.
He said: “We urge opposition parties, independents and Labour backbenchers who have opposed this scheme to join us”.
The Welsh Conservatives have also condemned the spiralling cost of the scheme, while they insisted the delay has already had an enormous impact on roads clogged with traffic.
Their economy spokesman, Russell George, said congestion was “tightening its grip on Welsh roads, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a single Labour transport project running on time and within budget”.
But Chris Sutton, of industry organisation CBI Wales, said any option other than the black route would be “tinkering around the edges”.
Yet conservationists are deeply worried, as the planned M4 relief road will go through important environmental areas.
Natural Resources Wales (NRW) said despite various measures, “the impact on the Gwent Levels is too great.
“A number of limited but nonetheless significant objections have proved incapable of resolution”.
Motorists have long faced a lengthy wait in queues at the Brynglas tunnels.
As part of an upgrade schedule, the tunnel has in the past been shut completely on weeknights.
The Usk River bridge and Malpas junction viaduct, either side of the tunnels, have also been undergoing maintenance.
In July 2011 a major lorry fire in the tunnels meant they were closed in both directions.
At the time, the WG said because of the severity of the fire the tunnels would have to remain closed until “a full and thorough” investigation was completed.
There should also be more investigation into the increased traffic at the Brynglas tunnels once the Severn Crossing tolls are scrapped.