Tolls, congestion and road pricing

 The ABD opposes them

Given that the Government takes five times as much tax from drivers as it spends on the road network, further burdens in the form of tolls, congestion charges or pay-per-mile road pricing are unjustified and unacceptable.

Tolls have traditionally been used only to pay for major infrastructure investments such as estuarial crossings, where drivers have few if any alternative routes. In these situations the tolls should be removed once the capital cost has been repaid and a maintenance fund established. In the case of the Dartford Crossing, a vital link in London`s M25 orbital motorway, that point was reached around 2001, but the tolls have been retained and, indeed, increased, simply to take even more money from drivers. While the removal of the toll booths has reduced the congestion caused by drivers stopping to pay the toll, it is still indefensible that a clear promise to end the tolls once the crossing had been paid for has been broken.

The M6 Toll Road shows clearly how drivers avoid paying tolls if there are alternative routes available. Originally known as the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, the M6 Toll Road was intended to relieve congestion on the M6 around Birmingham. It has consistently failed to attract traffic at anything like the forecast levels, however, with the result that the project has been losing money every year since it opened. Indeed, traffic levels have fallen as the operators have raised the toll charges in an attempt to generate more income. Many drivers, it seems, would prefer to take their chances with congestion on the M6 than pay extra for the privilege of using the new road.

The Government has proposed to include further toll roads in its plans to improve the strategic road network, but it is hard to see how these would be any more successful commercially than the M6 Toll. A much better approach would be for the Government to pay ‘shadow tolls’ to the builders of new road capacity. This involves payment according to the volume of traffic using the new roads, giving the operators an incentive to make the road as attractive as possible. It enables the Government to avoid paying the construction costs upfront. This system has been used successfully in the past but fell out of favour as a result of pressure from the anti-roads lobby, who want to discourage people from driving. It is time for shadow tolls to be looked at again.

Congestion charging in cities has been advocated for years by the anti-car lobby as a means of reducing traffic levels. In reality, traffic flows into our major cities have been static or falling for many years, not just in the post-2008 economic downturn. Congestion has been increasing despite these falling traffic levels because of actions taken by local authorities to reduce road space for cars. Having created the congestion in the first place, councils want to charge drivers more for an inferior service!

So far, the Central London Congestion Charge is the only significant scheme in the UK. In its first year of operation, congestion in central London did fall slightly, but this was due to manufactured congestion in the pre-charging period, when many road works were undertaken simultaneously, causing delays. Over the subsequent years, however, congestion returned to the level before the scheme began, as road space was taken up by more buses and taxis.

The western extension of the London congestion charging zone was introduced by Ken Livingstone despite strong opposition. It too achieved very little in cutting congestion, but jeopardised the future of many businesses in the area. Boris Johnson removed the extension after a public consultation showed a large majority in favour of scrapping it.

Wherever residents have been given the opportunity to have their say on whether congestion charging should be introduced, such as in Edinburgh and Manchester, they have voted overwhelmingly against. Congestion charging schemes are neither wanted nor needed.

Road pricing, in which drivers are charged for every mile travelled at rates varying according to the roads used and the time of day, is often claimed to be the best way to manage the road network to alleviate congestion. Apart from the privacy issues involved in drivers being tracked continuously, even a cursory examination of the idea shows that it cannot cut congestion without forcing many drivers off the roads altogether, especially those with lower incomes.

Advocates claim that other road user charges, like vehicle excise and fuel duties, would be reduced to compensate for the charges per mile travelled. However, the costs of introducing a national road pricing scheme, plus the annual running costs, would be very high and would have to be paid by someone. It is highly unlikely that the Government would be prepared to pay those costs, so they would instead be added to the burden paid by drivers. Thus a road pricing scheme might be revenue-neutral to the Treasury but it would certainly not be tax neutral to the average driver!

In 2007 an ABD member started an e-petition against road pricing on the Downing Street website that attracted 1.8 million signatures. This was an extraordinary response and showed very clearly that there should be no place in transport policy for road pricing schemes.

Congestion charging and road pricing schemes do not work and are generally uneconomic. It’s cheaper to tackle congestion in other ways. 

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