Transport Minister labels A494 traffic problems a “really tricky case” with no quick fix
The Deputy Minister in charge of transport in Wales has described resolving congestion issues around the A494 and Aston Hill as a complex problem without an immediate solution.
After the Welsh Government cancelled most of its major road-building projects, many people, including local politicians, were left wondering what measures, if any, would be taken to address the severe traffic problems on the A494, the primary route linking England with North Wales.
In 2017, Ken Skates MS, who was then serving as Wales’ Economy Secretary, unveiled the so-called “Red Route” as the favoured solution for the Deeside corridor scheme. This project would have cost £350m if it had proceeded.
The scheme proposed a new dual carriageway that would link the A494 from Merseyside and the A550, which carries traffic from the M56, to the A55 at Northop. This would have halved traffic on the notorious Aston Hill bottleneck where high levels of exhaust pollution have prompted the Welsh Government to reduce the speed limit to 50mph.
However, strong opposition came from locals and environmental charities, as the plan involved constructing a four-lane road through Northop’s ancient woodland and farmland.
In 2021, Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters – who oversees transport in Wales – halted all road projects in the country that were not already underway and set up a Roads Review Panel to assess the merits of each project.
The panel’s job was to scrutinise the alignment of existing road-building projects in Wales with broader policy goals such as Net Zero, and to set the conditions under which future road building would be justified.
Waters stated that all future infrastructure projects must now “reduce carbon emissions and encourage a shift to public transport, walking and cycling”.
Unsurprisingly, when the Roads Review Panel report was finally released in February, it recommended that the Red Route scheme ‘should not proceed because the case for change is not well-aligned with the Welsh Government’s aim to reduce car mileage.”
The expert panel commented: “The scheme would increase private car capacity and result in a shift from public transport to car travel, undermining the target to increase sustainable transport mode share.”
Politicians, business leaders, and residents of communities along the A494 in Deeside reacted with anger to the decision.
One resident lamented: “Every weekend in the summer we are landlocked. We residents just want to use our roads to go out locally.”
Alyn and Deeside MP Mark Tami launched a blistering attack on the Welsh Government, expressing “massive disappointment, not only for businesses but primarily for the air and noise pollution for people who live here.”
“Pollution levels are only set to worsen and while building new roads will never be easy, we have spent years on reviews and finally came up with the Red Route, which should have been implemented.”
The Labour MP added: “The Welsh Government can speak about a commitment to public transport, but we have one of the highest rates of travel to work by car in the UK. That’s because adequate public transport simply isn’t available.”
Leader of Flintshire County Council, Councillor Ian Roberts, voiced the local authority’s concerns that no alternative solutions or funding for much-needed local transport infrastructure improvements were being proposed.
Following the decision, Cllr Roberts said: “Flintshire is a major gateway into North Wales and the wider region. The fragility of the road network, regular congestion, and the lack of resilience on the network are hindering economic growth, tourism and having a detrimental impact on the health of our residents.”
“We require a suite of measures and funding to mitigate the impact of traffic congestion on the local economy and improve air quality in Aston, Higher Shotton, Queensferry, and Sealand. We also need investment in transport infrastructure and services in our county.”
Askar Sheibani, Chief Executive of Comtek Network Systems and chairman of Deeside Business Forum, expressed concern that the panel “did not genuinely engage with communities. As far as I’m aware, they didn’t liaise with locally elected members. The engagement with council highways officers was very poor.”
He continued: “We’ve been given a diktat from 140 miles away that vitally important infrastructure works will not proceed, and there are no alternative solutions on the table.”
Hawarden Aston Councillor Helen Brown, a member of the independent group on Flintshire Council, claimed that the scrapping of the Red Route scheme “treats North Wales with contempt,” adding that “residents are left guessing as to how the area’s pollution issues will be tackled and road congestion alleviated.”
Following the publication of the Roads Review report, Lee Waters MS indicated that some improvements will be made to the A494 at Aston Hill, describing it as a “separate case.”
At the time he said: “We will cooperate with local authorities to develop solutions that will bring some short-term benefits to that area.”
However, specific details of these improvements have yet to be revealed.
While Aston Hill is often labelled as a bottleneck, the true traffic issues start at the River Dee crossing, where, until recently, three lanes merged into two. Recent reconfiguration efforts have now moved this merging point closer to the former RAF Sealand base.
This new layout has been stress-tested over the past few weeks with three consecutive bank holidays, a school half-term break, and prolonged warm weather bringing a surge of holidaymakers and visitors from England to North Wales.
At peak times, there were reports of queues extending well beyond the border and back to the M56, with travel delays seemingly increased.
Through the use of various traffic monitoring systems, it’s been noted that travel times have at times escalated to as much as an hour for the six-mile span from the A540 junction at Saughall to the start of the A55.
Warning of ‘severe’ delays on the W/B A494 through Deeside – taking about 50 minutes to get through the congestion according to traffic maps .. pic.twitter.com/vD7igE53x7
— DEESIDE.com (@DeesideDotCom) June 9, 2023
Lee Waters visited Deeside last week and drove along the A494 at Aston Hill with highway engineers.
Deeside.com took the opportunity to interview the Deputy Minister.
Waters described Aston Hill as a “really tricky case” with no immediate solutions.
He explained: “The basic principle of the Roads Review is that we should avoid continuously increasing road capacity with bigger junctions and wider roads because that simply results in more people driving, exacerbating the problem.”
“But in cases like Aston Hill, finding alternative solutions is challenging due to the existing setup.”
Waters noted: “We’re going to do some creative thinking frankly around Aston Hill. We’ve put this challenge to consultancies across the country.”
“We’re trying to do something different here in Wales. Other countries will follow our lead.”
The Deputy Minister added: “We don’t have an exact blueprint. We need the brightest and best minds to think creatively about how we can achieve long-term objectives while easing short-term problems.”
“There are many examples where part of the solution could involve us saying, ‘Okay, we will build.’ It could be a road-based solution, but it can’t be the same type of roads we’ve always built.”
“A range of alternatives must be offered to provide people with genuine choices because, at the moment, we don’t give people a choice. They have no option but to drive and that cannot continue,” he stated.
Waters commented that we “should learn lessons from the situation at Aston Hill. This is not what we should have done in the first place because we put a busy road right through a residential area, separating one side from the other.”
“We’ve said, in effect, cars come before people and communities! And now we’re stuck dealing with the consequences of that.”
“I’m not convinced that persisting with the same approach is the answer.”
The Deputy Minister admitted: “The difficulty we have is that there’s no obvious alternative solution. It’s a hard problem to work through.”
In a bid to reduce high levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), last year, the Welsh Government proposed the installation of 30-foot high ‘air quality barriers’ along Aston Hill.
However, the plan was shelved when new data revealed that NO2 levels had fallen to safer levels.
Waters said: “The air quality around the A494 has improved since the 50 mph speed limit was imposed, and it will improve again as more people switch to electric cars.”
“If you look at the business case for the Red Route, we would expect to see levels of congestion back where they are today within 10 to 15 years.”
“Even advocates for the Red Route were admitting that it would not solve the problem, it would merely postpone it.”
He continued: “So, we’d spend £350m, destroy ancient woodland, generate a huge amount of carbon, induce more traffic and we’d be back to square one in 15 years.”
“That is not a sustainable solution. I understand that the alternative is difficult and we don’t have all the answers, but surely, we must agree that at some point we need to change course and that time is now.”
“I believe we (the Welsh Government) deserve some credit for having the courage to say that now is the time.”
“We don’t have the answer for every situation but we have to be creative and figure it out.”
When pressed on whether he had his own ideas for how to alleviate the traffic issues on the A494 at Aston Hill, Mr Waters responded: “I’m not going to be flippant and pick an answer, I don’t have an answer, because it’s hard.” Spotted something? Got a story? Send a Facebook Message | A direct message on Twitter | Email: News@Deeside.com