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What price road charging?

31 August 2010

The spring and summer bank holidays and their inevitable travel problems may now be a distant memory, but traffic congestion and all its attendant waste and environmental pollution is an ever-present problem that refuses to go away. Of all the ameliorating measures that have been proposed, perhaps the most controversial is that of road pricing.

The latest Department for Transport (DfT) survey of public attitudes towards traffic congestion, which was published on August 26, asked its respondents to comment on the effectiveness and fairness of alternative road charging schemes. Over half of them agreed that the current system of paying for road use should change so that the amount people pay is based on how often, when and where they use the roads. But how this might be made to work fairly elicited a wide variation of opinion.

Under a quarter of respondents to the DfT survey thought that people driving on busy roads should pay more while a similar proportion said that people driving at busy times should pay more. Three in ten adults thought that a new charging scheme based on times of travel and specific route taken would work in reducing congestion, while over half said it would not. Almost three in five of those who felt such a scheme wouldn’t work gave people not being able to change their behaviour as a reason for this, while a third said people wouldn’t want to change.

Twenty six per cent of adults said that a new charging scheme based on these principles would be fair to road users - that’s down from two years ago - but 55 per cent thought it would be unfair. Again, the majority of those judging such a scheme to be unfair cited that people wouldn’t be able to change their behaviour as a reason, while over a third said the costs would be too much for some.

When asked whether they would be prepared to accept road pricing as long as there was no overall increase in the amount paid by motorists as a whole, 38 per cent agreed while 34 per cent disagreed. Two years ago, 41 per cent agreed and 35 per cent disagreed. Almost half of adults said that money raised from such a scheme should be spent solely on roads and transport while over one in ten maintained that they didn’t agree with it under any circumstances.

It is interesting that the DfT is gauging the views of the public on this issue at this time, since it is currently consulting widely among interested UK parties on the future of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), the European Commission’s long-term initiative that is seeking to establish a single, multi-modal network integrating land, sea and air transport networks throughout the Community. I say “consulting widely”, but I wonder just how broadly the DfT has managed to cast this particular net. However, there is still time to respond. The UK consultation, which can be found here, is seeking views on the methodology to update the TEN-T maps, and ways in which the efficiency of the future TEN-T programme might be improved.

On the surface of it, TEN-T has worthy intentions but some observers feel that it is merely the thin end of a wedge that will eventually see the EU forcing continental Europe’s penchant for road pricing on our more strategic routes, giving the UK parliament very little say in the matter. The DfT’s current consultation period of just six weeks – half the usual amount of time given over to such matters – comes to an end on Friday September 10.

Last week, the pressure group, Campaign for Better Transport (CfBT) released a 12-page report entitled
Counting the cost of Congestion Relief, which examines the impact that Britain’s only major toll road, the M6 Midlands Expressway, has had since it opened in 2003, taking evidence from recent Highways Agency and Transport Select Committee reports, and the annual financial reports of M6 Toll Road owner, Midland Expressway Limited.

The CfBT report suggests that not only has the toll road not improved transport in the West Midlands, but that drivers who paid the toll were not receiving value for money. The toll’s operator was losing tens of millions of pounds each year and the Highways Agency is now planning to spend half a billion pounds on congestion relief which the M6 Toll Road was supposed to have provided.

Midland Expressway, despite making a number of increases to the toll charge since the road opened, reports steadily increasing numbers of motorists using the route. The latest quarterly statistics reveals a 4.1% average increase in traffic volumes on the previous period.

For its part, the RAC Foundation believes motorists can benefit from road pricing schemes, so long as any system introduced replaces the existing tax regime. In a blog posted on the Foundation’s website last week, one commentator reminds us that motorists pay £47 billion to the Exchequer each year and that they deserve something in return; namely, more reliable journeys on good quality roads.

The RAC Foundation website suggests that if the ways in which motorists paid for their road use were changed and an independent watchdog were developed to protect road funds, congestion could be cut and journey times made more reliable. In exchange for reduced fuel duty and road tax, drivers might pay per mile with rates reflecting the time of day and traffic volumes.

So where does this leave tolling schemes, it asks? Tolled roads are common on the continent and are paid for in addition to the existing tax base. They provide users with the tangible benefits of reduced congestion and improved journey times. With scarcely veiled reference to the CfBT report’s findings, the RAC Foundation commentator asks: is it not surprising, given the economic downturn, that fewer drivers are opting to pay tolls and that congestion on other local roads is increasing? Does this mean tolls have failed or that the cost is too much? Or does it tell us that people don’t like to pay for something they can get for free (especially in financially difficult times)? What the example does demonstrate is that charging for road use influences peoples’ decisions.

Though it would appear broadly in favour, the RAC Foundation believes individual tolled roads are unlikely to be the answer to all our transport problems, because they operate in isolation without the governance structure needed to allow the network to respond to user needs. It is crucial that we move towards a different way of governing and paying for road use, which includes, and provides potential benefits to, everyone.

The CfBT’s well-researched document may well lead us to believe that distinctly undemocratic toll roads are not for us in the UK, but we should not lose sight of that fact that the Campaign has more fish to fry than simply providing a critique of road use. There are other modes of transport all hungry for funding, about which the CfDT is only too ready to inform us, and whose causes are also championed by the organisation.

The RAC Foundation’s blog says we are kidding ourselves if we think investing in these areas alone, with no other change in the
status quo will resolve the problems people experience daily on our roads.

Les Hunt

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