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Work to build the UK’s longest road tunnel could start in 18 months after Highways England (HE) invited tenders for the £2bn project.

It said construction sat at the heart of the proposed Lower Thames Crossing, which it hopes will improve journey times by almost doubling road capacity across the Thames east of London.

It will feature 14.3 miles of new road and two 2.6-mile long tunnels.

HE said that at 16 metres wide, they would be some of the largest bored tunnels in the world.

Matt Palmer, Lower Thames Crossing executive director, said: “The Lower Thames Crossing is the most ambitious road project this country has seen since the M25 was completed nearly 35 years ago.

“At a time of huge uncertainty for the industry, this contract shows our commitment to the project, which will support thousands of jobs during its construction and provide a huge boost to the UK economy when it opens for traffic.”

He added: “The scheme will relieve congestion at the Dartford Crossing by providing a new free flowing road, almost doubling road capacity across the Thames and supporting sustainable local and regional economic growth.”

HE said it expected three applicants to be shortlisted to move forward into the competitive dialogue stage, with the contract award anticipated in 2022.