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Roads: The Road to Nowhere?

Sheffield is on the verge of a major project to upgrade all its roads to a proper standard after years of being neglected, patched and generally made inadequate by temporary fixes. You'd expect people would welcome this. After all, there is nothing worse than being thrown about and generally discomforted by the surface upon which you travel; a surface that would challenge the most gifted off-road cyclist even without the added danger of other road users weaving to avoid the most deep ruts and gullies. Then there's pedestrians, often-forgotten road users who will also benefit from the scheme, as all the pathways, trees and street furniture are being upgraded and made fit for purpose. So why do I feel unease at this grand scheme? A number of factors worry me. In no particular order... 1. Time scales The project is to start in Summer 2012. This is only a few months away but as yet no contractor has been selected, so people's confidence is not high that the final two bidders will be able to complete the scheme as required by the council. It will run for the next 25 years. As the council have explained it, the contractor will control the work schedule, which means the council will be abandoning responsibility for the roads to them. Not reassuring. The plan is for all of the development work to happen in the first 7-8 years of the scheme, and from then on just maintenance will be carried out in the final 18 years of the project. On that basis, at the end of the scheme we will have a road system nearly 20 years out of date - similar almost to where we are now. 2. Cost The scheme has been trumpeted by councillors Brian Lodge and Leigh Bramall as "the biggest local Government PFI scheme yet" at the very same time as various audit reports have said that PFI schemes have been a disaster and do not represent value for money for the taxpayer. Does it makes sense to go down this route? The council have taken steps to ensure the cost to the council in the early years is only £2 million a year more than was already committed for existing transport matters, but fail to explain the implications of this in later years. The cost to Sheffield will increase year on year by £2 million until 2023, and then a smaller £1 million until it peaks at more than £64 million in its final year - more than twice the initial £30.5 million outlay of 2012/3. Should the council be committing the city to paying massive annual sums till 2037? The council's previous attempts at this sort of financial management weren't a great success. We are still paying off the cost of the 1991 World Student Games, because they rescheduled the repayments due to not being able to afford the costs at previously agreed rates. I can see history repeating itself to the detriment of the Sheffield citizen. The scheme risks being as inflexible a contract as the 35-year contract with Veolia to empty waste bins. When it was started in 2001, the contract didn't consider the possibility that we would need blue bins for recycling and this has cost the council. It is clear to me that the council have glossed over similar potential problems with the new roads PFI and are only promoting one side of the equation. 3. Disruption The city's road system is fragile. Every few months, we have one broken down bus or car that causes gridlock in the city. We also had two years of chaos on the roads when the Supertram system was being installed for those that remember it. You can see the potential for greater problems if, as the plan suggests, every road, footpath, street light and tree is going to be replaced, upgraded or improved. Sadly, years of decline have made the scale of these improvements unavoidable if the city is to move forward. So where does that leave us? It seems it is too late to stop this project. We just need to buckle up and enjoy the ride. Maybe we'll lose the 'pothole city' tag, but I fear that we'll simply replace it with 'PFI disaster city' and our children will be paying through the nose for these mistakes. It's all very well reducing costs in the first few years - though it's more than the city is currently paying - but it's not fair to leave huge burdens to future generations and city administrations. My final message is 'Stop the ride, I want to get off.' )

Next article in issue 46

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There's the long-lasting 'debate about aura', writes Louise Gray in the brief but insightful No Nonsense Guide to World Music: 'Each sound, 

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