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Innovation in road infrastructure

Populations in the developed world may not be growing as fast as those in developing countries, but they are becoming increasingly urbanised. This is a phenomenon that affects all manner of decisions and policies that countries make and enact, as they try to cope with the challenge of fitting more people into pre-existing infrastructure that was never built with such demand in mind. Transport infrastructure may be particularly challenging to develop as it is set around pre-existing, situationally crystallised roads and railways that are impossible to expand outwards without major seizures of land. A commuter into London at 7am on the M4 motorway might wish the road could be five lanes wide, but given that that would entail bulldozing trillions of pounds worth of property it is simply inconceivable that such a solution would ever be enacted. The challenge, therefore, for planners and governments is to do more with the same.

Within this challenging environment, however, innovative solutions are being implemented across the world and are making road infrastructure work better for a variety of stakeholders: better for users, who have their daily commuting time lessened and their average journey times made more predictable and less susceptible to unexpected delays; better for governments, who enjoy a boost to their GDP in reduced congestion on roads (in the United States alone, the cost of congestion increased by 500 percent in the last two decades, from $24 billion in 1982 to $121 billion in 2011)1 and better for local communities, who have reduced pollution and can benefit from local job creation.

Meridiam makes it a priority to engage local workers on its projects. Meridiam has a portfolio of 22 road transportation projects globally, representing €17 billion of total investment. We bring innovative solutions to transport challenges that offer value for money, sophisticated and long-lasting engineering and benefit to the communities that surround the infrastructure.

Of all our projects, the managed lanes projects in Texas and the L2 Marseille in France encapsulate this commitment to innovation, both in the technical sphere and in the ESG arena. Both these projects illustrate the difficulties faced with road planning in built-up areas and the methods of overcoming congestion and providing relief to stakeholders.

There are a number of measures planners can take to optimise traffic flow and vehicle throughput on busy roads, such as high occupancy vehicle lanes, which reward passengers who “carpool”, bus lanes, use of shoulders and reversible or contraflow lanes. The method chosen for the managed lanes projects in Texas is to have tolls that vary dynamically and sensitively to maintain a higher throughput and to guarantee a minimum speed on the highway. As the lanes approach their capacity (at peak use hours) tolls are increased to dissuade other vehicles from entering and to maintain the guaranteed minimum speed floor. This is a concept increasingly used in the United States. The North Tarrant Expressway (NTE) and the IH-635 LBJ roads that form the managed lanes projects rank among the most congested in Texas, with multiple traffic generators surrounding them (company headquarters, residential areas and Dallas Fort Worth airport all rely on the roads) and there is congestion throughout the day, with peaks at both hours and in both directions – a fate not usually suffered by radial connectors into and out of an urban area, which tend to see congestion coming in during the morning and going out in the evening – a situation where the ‘contraflow lane’ concept could work well.

Population growth in Texas is very strong and remained so throughout the global financial crisis. The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area added over 1.2 million people throughout the first decade of this century and has a population actually larger than 35 states itself. Personal income is strong and the Texas economy has outperformed the larger United States economy, with growth expected to remain above 3 percent through 2018.2 These factors, allied to a comparatively low unemployment rate and the recent low price of oil, mean that the road network is very congested. On the LBJ and NTE therefore, Meridiam and Cintra/Ferrovial have constructed managed lanes that augment the pre-existing congested traffic corridor to manage the very significant congestion in the corridors. These Express Toll Lanes (ETLs) are separated from the free lanes and have controlled access, with on-off ramps at selected locations. The ETLs operate under a dynamic tolling regime for an improved level of service and guarantee speeds of 50 miles per hour as a minimum to those drivers who elect to pay the toll. Research conducted prior to the construction shows that even as much as the time of the journey drivers actually value the reliability of the journey time and so the main objective with the ETLs is to provide users with more predictable travel times in return for a toll payment.

Construction on both projects was achieved ahead of schedule (nine months early for NTE) and already the ETLs are proving popular with drivers. Dynamic tolling is implemented through dynamic toll rate signs to inform drivers of the current toll rate allowing them to easily and safely choose if they wish to enter the managed lanes. In addition, a live map on the website and the app displays current traffic conditions on the road, enabling drivers to decide whether to use the lanes well in advance of the tolling signage. In order to keep traffic flowing, the tolling system is a ‘free-flow’ system where users may pay via electronic transponders (‘tags’) or license plate recognition video cameras for other vehicles. The managed lanes also incorporate other strategies for reducing congestion into the tolling mechanism. Drivers who are carpooling, with at least one passenger in the vehicle, are eligible for a high occupancy vehicle discount of 50 percent. Registration for this scheme is quick and easy via a smartphone app, where each user may self-declare and confirm its carpooling status.

ESG is, as ever with Meridiam’s projects, being put at the forefront of the construction of the L2 motorway in Marseille. This projects encapsulates all that is challenging about improving and augmenting pre-existing urban road infrastructure, building a road in a densely populated area using sophisticated cut and cover construction methods. The L2 will link the A7 highway in the north of the city and the A50 in the east and thereby release part of the downtown traffic, reduce both travel time and air pollution, increase road capacity by 50 percent and offer better traffic conditions and security to users throughout the peripheral urban network. The traffic flows, once the whole link is completed, are estimated to reach between 100,000 and 120,000 annual average daily traffic of which 5 to 7 percent would be heavy goods vehicles (no hazardous transport is permitted). Unlike the Texas managed lanes project, the L2 is based on availability payments paid by the grantor, subject to satisfactory performance.

The L2 has significant complexity in terms of works and integration within an urban context. In addition to the various stakeholders to be dealt with, given the urban context both the project company and its contractors have proven ability in managing traffic during construction and working in a highly populated and utility-riddled urban area. Construction remains on schedule and is expected to be completed in 2017, with a concession life of 30 years.

In keeping with being a truly long-term partner to the community as a whole, the L2 project company has initiated a comprehensive programme of ESG-related activities. It has been agreed, for instance, that 12 percent of the workforce will consist of previously unemployed people. Further, the project company has initiated a fresco wall-art that will help the urban integration of the L2 and the appropriation of the asset by the neighbouring citizen stakeholders. Major international street artists have contributed to the initiative to date along with local artists. The initiative has received a good press coverage in the local media and has been warmly welcomed by the community as an example of what infrastructure can do in terms of regenerating urban areas.

The managed lanes in Texas and the L2 urban regeneration are just two examples of Meridiam’s long-term approach to finding innovative solutions not only for roads, but for all infrastructure in the countries that we operate in. The challenges of an increasingly urban population are able to be surmounted and change can be made to work for users and communities for the long-term over several decades and well into the latter part of the century.