A flimsy piece of ribbon brought the Portsmouth area at least 30 minutes closer to the rest of the country today as the Hindhead tunnel on the A3 was finally opened.
At 10.39am transport minister Philip Hammond snipped the symbolic tape at the exit to one of the mile-and-a-quarter-long tunnels to herald a new economic dawn for south-east Hampshire.
At that precise moment police on the Hampshire/Surrey border barricaded the old southbound A3 shortly at the start of the new stretch of road and launch a rolling road block.
At a sedate 40mph two police cars brought through the first vehicles, which included a number of classic motorbikes, to use the tunnel and new four-mile road which has cost £371m.
Only the southbound stretch of the dual carriageway beneath the Devil’s Punchbowl beauty spot is now open. The northbound stretch, from just north of Liphook, will be opened after the morning rush hour on Friday.
Work will then start immediately to dig up the old, winding A3 around the Punchbowl before it eventually becomes part of the heathland again in several years’ time.
Paul Arnold, who has masterminded the building of the road for the past five years, said: ‘This is a marvellous day which the people of the Portsmouth area have been waiting for for a generation.
‘Residents of Hindhead will also be delighted that at long last they won’t have to endure all that traffic trundling through their village.’
He said about 36,000 vehicles a day will use the new road cutting an average of half-an-hour of drivers’ journeys at peak times.
The bottleneck at the notorious Hindhead traffic lights has been known to add up to 50 minutes to trips at the busiest times.
The tunnel is the longest road tunnel under land in the UK. It comprises two, separate tubes, one northbound, the other southbound. Both are dual carriageways and motorists will be able to drive at 70mph through them enforced by speed cameras at either end.
Paul Neal, the major highways director of builders Balfour Beatty, said: ‘The road has opened on time and on budget.
‘It’s been a very interesting project to work on largely because of the geology and environmental concerns of driving a new road and tunnel through a sensitive beauty spot.’
Before cutting the symbolic ribbon, transport secretary Philip Hammond said the old A3 which was largely single-carriageway, was one of the South’s major blackspots.
He said: ‘The high traffic flows resulted in unreliable journey times and a poor accident record.
‘It is calculated that thanks to the new road and the tunnel that more than 2,000 accidents will be avoided over the next 60 years.’
He said the opening of the road would cut the morning wait at the Hindhead crossroads by at least 25 minutes.
He added: ‘I am delighted to see light at the end of the tunnel for those who have had to experience the Hindhead congestion.’
The new road now means the last stretch of single carriageway A-road between Portsmouth and Scotland is now a thing of the past.