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Debate rages over site of Lower Thames Crossing

PUBLISHED: 06:00 09 July 2015

Dartford Crossing

Dartford Crossing

Archant

Everybody wants it. But nobody wants it.

FIVE more years of pain.

That, according to the Freight Transport Association, is what’s in store for motorists - unless the Government acts faster to resolve the brewing crisis at the Dartford Crossing.

Motorists using the crossing are experiencing faster travel times than in recent years, thanks to the replacement of the toll booths by a remote payment system.

But the FTA, Highways England, Kent County Council and Dartford MP Gareth Johnson are all warning that it’s a medium term solution - which won’t keep traffic rolling in the longer term.

James Wright, from Highways England – the government body in charge of major roads –said that although the free-flow tolls were relieving pressure at the crossing, traffic would begin to build again.

“The improvements are only likely to be felt for the next 10 years, maybe more,” he said.

“With the crossing already taking high volumes of traffic, it will become crucial to get a long-term solution soon.”

The Government has pledged to start examining the case for a new Thames crossing –known as the lower Thames crossing - in this Parliament. Two options are being considered.

Option A would cross the river at Dartford, near the existing crossing, while the second choice, Option C, would cut east of Gravesend.

But if many agree that another crossing is needed, where it should go is a trickier issue.

Dartford MP Gareth Johnson says no new crossing should be built in his constituency.

“Air pollution is already a serious issue in Dartford, with the existing crossing making things worse than they should be,” he said.

“The area also has a lot of pollution blown down from London, as Dartford sits in a basin.

“More traffic from a new crossing would exacerbate the issue even more. It would not only be unfair to ask Dartford to take the burden of another crossing, it would be seriously damaging to the environment.”

Both he and Kent County Council leader Paul Carter also consider that a new crossing in Dartford would fail motorists.

Cllr Carter said: “A crossing east of Gravesend would provide a new route to the north of England and would mean motorists would have a choice.

“If there was another crossing at Dartford and there was an accident, it would still cause problems.”

The FTA’s head of policy, Natalie Chapman, said that at the moment there was no other route for freight to use if the crossing was closed.

“Lorries travelling across it are effectively stranded,” she said.

“The Blackwall Tunnel isn’t an option for many, due to size restrictions on vehicles, and the only other option is to go clockwise around the M25. The time that would take makes it unfeasible for drivers.

“A new option C crossing would give drivers more options and probably draw a lot of traffic going through Dartford away from it.”

Not everyone favours a crossing east of Gravesend, though – particularly people in the borough, according to Gravesham Borough Council leader John Cubitt.

“People in Gravesend and the surrounding villages do not see option C east of Gravesend as the better choice,” he said.

“One of the biggest reasons is the severe environmental damage it would do. It would be destructive to a number of environmentally sensitive and designated places.

“Either a bridge or a tunnel would also be immensely expensive east of Gravesend as obviously the wider the river, the more difficult it would be to build. And until something is decided, it puts people in the area at a serious disadvantage if they are looking to sell their house.

“The reason for the poor air quality in Dartford has been all the stopping and starting due to the tolls. With them removed, and congestion less likely, it should get better.”

And countryside campaign group CPRE Kent dispute that a new crossing is necessary at all.

Chairwoman Christine Drury said that transport troubles needed a more holistic fix than road-building.

She said: “The free-flow tolls only became fully operational northbound on June 13, so we need to let them bed in before we can see the impact on traffic flow and efficiency.

“We also need to look closely at public transport, including the effect of Crossrail and new rail services in north Kent.

“It is too early to make decisions on a potentially very expensive and environmentally-damaging new crossing, which we believe is unnecessary.

“It is proven that increased road capacity always leads to increased traffic. We advocate a shift to public transport as a preferable solution.”

Highways England is expected to present a report on both options to the Transport Minister before the end of this year.

A public consultation would then take place early next year, with a final decision next summer.

But Ms Chapman says things are not moving quickly enough.

She said: “Traffic northbound through the tunnels is expected to go back to pre-free-flow levels by 2020.

“No new crossing is, at this stage, expected until around 2025.”

Cllr Carter added: “People sitting in traffic is bad for business and bad for the economy.

“In this country we wait far too long to get large infrastructure projects underway. The Chinese manage to build huge projects within two years.”

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