Friday's scrutiny committee meeting covered a bit of ground - looking at our work plans for the year ahead and at the communications surrounding the planned closure of the St Chad's and Queensway tunnels from the 19 July for six weeks until the 2 September.
These tunnels are 40 years old and are showing their age - aren't we all? They need some in depth structural work that can't be completed without a prolonged programme of closures and have to be done by April 2014. The closures will see structural upgrades, upgrades to the fire protection systems, replacement LED lights and improvements to the general appearance. There will have to be some further closures next year to allow the installation of new emergency, control and communication systems to keep up with legislation.
The original plan was to close the tunnels for 26 weekends, which would have run into the Christmas period. Having to stop and start the works like that would have added to the delays, as the tunnels would have to be made safe in between work periods, which raised a number of health and safety issues. The alternative was a six-week full closure of the tunnels over the summer holiday period, which also has the advantage of being significantly cheaper - reducing the amount we have to pay to our highway contractor, Amey.. Traffic levels are normally down by about 20% during this period anyway and the highways team believe that diversion routes will be able to reduce the traffic by a further 15% by diverting away the through traffic either around the Birmingham motorway box or using the inner ring road. They are also encouraging people to find other methods of travel into the city during the closure period - train, bus or bike. Finally, we also need to be clear that Birmingham remains open for business during the work period.
The committee heard about the communications around this - getting stories into the local media, using Twitter and social media to spread the word and running a website, as well as working with local partners like the Hippodrome and the local business improvement districts. I did note that it seemed to lack some ambition and Cllr Quinn pointed out that the hoardings over the tunnels weren't being used to advertise the closures, which seems to be an opportunity missed.
The biggest concern, which has made the front page of the Birmingham Mail today, was that as part of the traffic management, Broad Street will be restricted on the inbound side from the Hyatt Hotel to Paradise Circus. It will remain open to buses and bikes, but cars will be prohibited. The logic behind this is correct - Paradise Circus is going to be congested with traffic escaping the tunnels and can do without the additional flow of cars from Broad Street. The problem is that this restriction hasn't been communicated at all - it isn't even mentioned on the Brumtunnels website on the alternative route suggested to Broad Street itself. Cllr Deirdre Alden (I believe there's something in the constitution that insists on us having an Alden on the committee - we had Bobby with us last year) was critical of that, but other members of the committee - including myself - were just as vocal, or "outraged" as Neil Elkes puts it. We should see some changes in the strategy as a result.
We can certainly expect increased congestion on the Inner Ring Road and in the centre of the City around the tunnels over the six week closure period and the Highways team will be carrying out what they term "dynamic traffic management." This isn't just a few blokes in a van with some cones, but includes constant CCTV monitoring of traffic and live changes to traffic signalling to try to keep the city moving as best they can during the delays. The committee will be visiting the control centre once the closures start to see how this is done.
Don't forget - the overnight closures between 10pm and 6am start this Friday 21 June. The tunnels will close completely on the 19 July and reopen on (or hopefully before) 6am on Monday 2 September. Keep an eye on the Brumtunnels website for updates.
Issues coming up over the next year include wheelie bins, Birmingham Energy Savers and the Green Deal, reviewing progress on the cycling strategy, wheelie bins and completing the work on our scrutiny report "From Waste to Resource" which will help set the strategy for how Birmingham deals with waste after 2018 (that's a major piece of work). I'm also sure that wheelie bins will come up somewhere in there.