HERE we go again.

Highways chiefs have been accused of risking a repeat of the traffic chaos which hit Southampton when part of the M27 was closed last year as part of a £19m bridge replacement project.

Drivers will be told to take a 55-mile detour when the motorway shuts again next month to enable engineers to complete the scheme.

Motorists heading west on the M27 will have to join the M3 and travel via Winchester, Andover and Salisbury before finally rejoining the motorway at Ower.

The same diversion was used during a similar weekend closure in September 2018.

Parts of Southampton were paralysed as drivers cut through the city to avoid the huge detour, which turned what was normally a short drive into a two-hour loop around Hampshire.

Highway bosses were urged to rethink the diversion after areas of the city were brought to a standstill.

During a second M27 closure earlier this year westbound traffic only had to travel as far north as Winchester before doubling back via Romsey.

Highways England described the new routes as the "best possible arrangement".

Long tailbacks built up in the parts of the Southampton area but the operation is generally regarded as having been much more successful than the first.

However, Highways England has decided to revert to the original diversion for the third and final closure, which will take place between 10pm on Friday January 10 and 5am on January 13.

The M27 - used by 140,000 vehicles a day - will once again be shut in both directions between junctions 3 and 4.

The long detour has sparked fears that many of the drivers heading up the M27 from the Fareham area will cut through Southampton and Totton, clogging up the roads. People living near routes such as the A27 could see a huge increase in traffic unless motorists stick to the official detour.

Drivers heading down the M3 from the Basingstoke area will have to leave the motorway near East Stratton and take the A303 to Andover.

Eastbound traffic will have to leave the M27 at Ower and go through Romsey before joining the M3 near Winchester - a much shorter journey than the one faced by people travelling west.

A Highways England spokesman said: "We will be reverting to the diversion routes that were in operation during the first weekend closure in September 2018.

"We have selected diversion routes which disperse the (westbound) traffic as much as possible, make the best use of the Highways England network, and avoid residential areas wherever possible."

But campaigners have condemned the decision to use the same route which caused problems last year.

Hampshire county councillor David Harrison, who represents Totton, said: "I cannot imagine many motorists taking a long detour north to get around the closure.

"More likely, they will divert towards Southampton and Totton. This has the potential for making things much more congested than usual."

An AA spokesman added: "Inevitably, in the age of the SatNav, drivers will look for alternative routes."

A city council spokesperson said the authority would do what it could to minimise the impact of the closure by warning people about potential disruption and ensuring there are no roadworks on the diversion route.

In a message to motorists the spokesperson added: "As with the previous closures, significant delays to journey times in and around the city are possible, so please plan ahead.

"If you’re travelling to or around Southampton over that weekend make sure you allow extra time for your journey and consider public transport, walking or cycling where possible.”

As reported in the Daily Echo, engineers have spent months replacing the Romsey Road bridge, which carries the A3057 over the M27 near Chilworth.

The third closure will enable engineers to demolish what remains of the old structure.

Highways England is warning that traffic on roads near the closed section of motorway will be "much greater than normal" and are urging drivers to allow a "significant amount" of extra time for their journeys.

A spokesman said: "We are aware this is going to impact the roads locally and further afield.

"We have written to over 5,200 homes advising of the closure and will add to our static road signage with electronic (VMS) signage in the coming weeks."

The first closure enabled contractors to start demolishing the old bridge, which was built in the 1970s and was nearing the end of its life.

The M27 was closed again in June while the bridge's pre-built replacement was moved into position.

The operation was completed 36 hours ahead of schedule - but highway bosses say the January work is highly unlikely to finish early.

Last night a Highways England spokesman said it was possible to use the shorter diversion in June because the work was not expected to take more than 24 hours.

He added: "It was also possible to keep Romsey Road open. This is not possible this time as the old bridge is being demolished."