Will Lancashire's roads be getting any relief this year?
Once it was the weather that hogged the conversation, especially up here in wet and windy Lancashire.
But a new topic has taken over and it’s literally driving us round the bend.
Traffic congestion, jams and bottlenecks are the main issues we talk about on a daily basis – and who can blame us?
If the motorways don’t get you, then the A-roads will. So it’s little wonder we’re so obsessed with the problems we face getting around the county on a daily basis.
Preston, not surprisingly, is in the eye of the traffic storm most days.
It is officially amongst the most congested places in the UK, with journey times extended by 14 per cent every rush hour – and that is when things are running normally.
Throw in the odd shunt on the M6 and the place can be brought to a complete standstill.
Data from Inrix, a company that specialises in transport analysis, says drivers in Preston spent 15.7 peak hours in congestion in 2016, equating to six per cent of their total driving time for the year.
Dr Graham Cookson, said: “Whilst this is significantly below the UK average of 39 hours, congestion still cost Preston motorists an average of £570 each in 2016.
“Congestion is particularly high in Preston during peak hours within the city at 14 per cent, which is higher than major UK cities like Liverpool, Newcastle or Glasgow.”
On top of that the jams are estimated to be costing businesses in the city £4.6m a year in lost productivity alone.
But there are other traffic trouble spots too, from Lancaster to Leyland, and Penwortham to Poulton-le-Fylde. And there doesn’t seem a day goes by without long queues in some part of the county or another.
In the Post’s biggest-ever reader survey recently roads came second, only fractionally behind the health service, as the area where most people wanted to see more money spent.
We asked the people of Greater Preston how often they found themselves stuck in traffic and more than four out of five said at least once a week. A massive 53 per cent revealed it happened to them every day.
So why is Lancashire so congested? And what can the county do about it to make things better in 2018?
In total, including the two unitary authorities of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen, Lancashire has 106 miles of motorways, 494 miles of A-roads and 4,364 miles of minor roads.
In 2016 there were 821,400 motor vehicles licensed in the county – up by 14,800 from 2015. That adds up to 165 vehicles for every mile of carriageway.
But all is not doom and gloom. Lancashire is in the middle of a £357m highways spending spree in a bid to bring relief to the hard-pressed traveller.
One new road opened in 2017, another was being upgraded and four more made it to the drawing board and then got planning permission.
After 40 years of pleading, Broughton finally got a bypass in October to rid the village of its daily nose-to-tail jams.
And others are imminent in Penwortham and North Preston to help ease the choking congestion.
Will it be enough? Well, government figures predict many roads in Lancashire could eventually grind to a standstill unless drastic measures are taken.
Predictions for the next 20 years by the Department of Transport show the roads nightmare will get worse if traffic planners don’t come up with new techniques to tackle the congestion.
Explaining its road building strategy, the message from the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal is: “We cannot simply rely on making improvements to the existing network. Even with a much greater investment in public transport, cycling and walking, our current roads will not be able to cope.”
And speaking after the £109m Preston Western Distributor road was given planning permission in October, Coun Keith Iddon, LCC cabinet member for highways and transport said: “We want to help people get around while reducing congestion in parts of the road network.
“We’ve just opened the Broughton Bypass and we recently had approval for the Penwortham Bypass. We’ve now got approval for the Preston Western Distributor, which makes this a very positive time with major changes taking place on the road network across Preston and South Ribble.
“It’s clear that the area is changing and growing, which means that we also need to improve the road network to accommodate increasing numbers of vehicles in the future, while also helping to promote growth and create new jobs.”
Lancashire is also becoming the “pothole capital of the north” claims a leading county councillor.
County Coun Azhar Ali, leader of the Labour opposition group on the county council, said there had been hundreds of complaints about the deteriorating state of county roads in the last few weeks.
He said: “Many streets are down to the setts, bus routes are peppered with potholes.”
Likening road services to those in the “third world” he complained about the council’s “up to 20 day response time” to reports of potholes and flooding.
But Tory Coun Andrew Snowden, lead member for highways and transport, said his party was dealing with an inherited problem.
Noting the number of potholes reported in 2016/17 rose from 56,000 to 76,000 when Labour was in charge of the council, he said: “We’re trying to rectify and trying to innovate.”
£357 million splashed on new roads
Money, they say, can’t buy happiness … but it can certainly help if you’re a driver stuck in Lancashire’s jams. While we all grumble about the state of the county’s road network, the authorities can’t be accused of not splashing the cash to unblock the trouble spots.
A staggering total of £357m has either been spent, or is committed, to seven major highway projects to improve the flow of traffic.
First it was the £140m Bay Gateway, bringing a much-needed link between the M6 and Heysham in 2016.
The Broughton Bypass opened three month ago at a cost of £32m.
The South Ribble Western Distributor, to widen existing roads and junctions to create a dual carriageway from the motorway at Cuerden, past Penwortham and into the city centre, will top £52.5m when it is complete.
Looking ahead, Penwortham Bypass, where preparatory work has just begun, will cost around £17.5m, connecting the Booths roundabout with Liverpool Road at Howick.
And three new roads to ease traffic in the fast-developing north west of Preston - the Preston Western Distributor, the East-West Link and the Cottam Link - will weigh in at around £115m between them when they get underway soon.
The relief of Broughton
Last year it was officially one of the most congested places in Lancashire.
Today the people of Broughton have got their village back - and the sweet smell of fresh air - thanks to a £32m relief road around their homes.
The two kilometre James Towers Way was 40 years in the making. And three months after it was officially opened the villagers are still pinching themselves in case it was just a dream.
“They told us it would cut traffic by more than 90 per cent and it has,” said Jerome Fellows, who runs two filling stations in the village.
“We’ve seen a drop in business because there are far less vehicles passing through. But overall I’m happy with how the village is now - I think it was worth doing.”
The notorious traffic light junction in the centre of Broughton has been dismantled and replaced with a new layout, making drivers on the A6 give way to traffic crossing from Whittingham Lane and Woodplumpton Lane.
Locals say there has been a spate of minor accidents as drivers struggle to come to terms with the new priority - some have even called for the traffic lights to return.
There is also a 20 mph restriction through the village and extra traffic calming measures are to be introduced.
“It’s great for us who live here,” said Shelia Webster, who has looked out of her front window onto the A6 traffic queues for 40 years. “The big lorries are gone and there are very few cars compared to how it used to be. We’ve got our village back at long last.”
And wheelchair bound Ray Halliwell, who also lives on Garstang Road, added: “We’ve waited a long time for this. It was almost impossible to get in or out of our drive before, now it’s no problem. I can even cross the road in my wheelchair.”
Britain’s first motorway is approaching its 60th birthday next year.
But, like the old timer it now is, the M6 near Preston is getting more and more cantankerous as every year goes by.
It was 1959 when the eight-mile Preston Bypass opened to gasps of amazement. By the following year there were 95 miles of motorway in the UK. And last year the figure was up to 2,268 miles.
But there can be few more troublesome stretches than the one which seems to paralyse the city whenever there is a breakdown, a fire or a shunt.
More than 150,000 vehicles use the M6 near Preston on an average day. 13,000 of those are HGVs.
When wagon drivers were polled about which motorways they thought were the most congested in the UK, the M6 came out ahead of the M25 around London and the M60 around Manchester.
The Highways Agency says 65 per cent of congestion on Britain’s roads is caused by sheer weight of traffic, 25 per cent road accidents and 10 per cent road works. And over the past 10 years there has been a 37 per cent increase in motorway traffic.
Of all the incidents which caused the biggest knock-on effect in the city, two lorry fires in the past year proved to be the worst, both leading to closures in excess of 10 hours.
It already had its fair share of critics when Preston’s main shopping street went “shared space.”
But the emergence of bollards, bus lanes and big jams has ramped up the volume from disgruntled drivers cursing the day the county council ever decided to “improve” the look of Fishergate.
Motorists have become so frustrated with the congestion they have even been ringing 999 pleading with police to help them escape the log-jam.
Marshalls have been deployed at busy times to direct traffic - police officers too - and a host of “experimental” changes have been made to try and get it right.
But still it remains the traffic blackspot of the city, watched over by cameras fining the thousands each week who happen to get it wrong.
The county council nabbed almost 2,000 bus lane users in the first week and raked in at least £60,000.
They also went against the ethos of shared space and abandoned their strict “no priority” rule to make Fishergate traffic give way to that coming out of Butler Street.
Despite all this the queues continue at peak times with little sign of a solution on the horizon.