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Directors call for road pricing debate to combat congestion


Cambridgeshire company directors have called for a national debate on the introduction of a ‘road pricing’ system that charges motorists for travelling on certain routes as a means of preventing worsening traffic congestion.

With road congestion already estimated to cost the country £23 billion annually, members of the Eastern Branch of the Institute of Directors (IoD) believe that the government’s 10-year transport plan will be ineffective in stemming the relentless increase in car journeys.

While acknowledging that ‘road pricing’ could generate significant political opposition, they argue that radical steps are needed to encourage more people to use public transport and to help finance new road building schemes. Road pricing would be more acceptable to motorists if toll charges were matched by cuts in fuel taxes, they claim.

“We know this is a contentious issue,” said Eastern Branch chairman Stephanie Smye. “However, decisive action is needed to cope with escalating motor traffic which the government anticipates will grow by between 17 per cent and 22 per cent over the 2000 to 2010 period, depending on the success of its 10-year £59.1 billion roads investment plan.

“Even the lower figure means congestion would rise by 15 per cent across the road network and by 28 per cent on the inter-urban trunk network. It is obvious that pressure on urban routes throughout the county and the A14 and Cambridge in particular will be intolerable.”

In contrast with government spending plans, the AA calculates that investment in roads needs to rise from £6 billion in 1999 to £9 billion annually by 2003/04 just to cope with the backlog of repairs and improvements and then build steadily to £12 billion annually by 2007/08.

The IoD believes that introducing road pricing could even encourage private investors to finance the construction of new traffic routes in return for the income from toll charges.

Between 1952 and 1999 the total number of vehicle kilometres travelled by cars and taxis rose by 1,300 per cent from 30.6 billion to 380.1 billion while total road lengths increased by just 25 per cent. Cars and taxis now account for 81 per cent of motor vehicle traffic.

Over the same period the number of passenger kilometres travelled by car, van and taxi rose from 58 billion to 621 billion, or from 27 per cent to 85 per cent of all passenger kilometres travelled. In contrast, the number of bus and coach vehicle kilometres increased only slightly from 4.1 billion to 5 billion while the total distance travelled by bus passengers more than halved from 92 billion to 45 billion kilometres.

Miss Smye added: “The government’s 10-year transport plan hopes to achieve a 50 per cent increase in rail passenger traffic but that would account for only three per cent of road passenger traffic by 2010 and rail travel is not a viable alternative for many travellers.

“Currently only 14 per cent of road user taxation is actually spent on roads. Road pricing would be far more acceptable if there were commensurate cuts in other road taxation and if the money raised was spent on improving the road infrastructure.

“The growth in car ownership is being powered by improving levels of household income and social trends that result in more women drivers and more single person households. At present people simply fill their cars with petrol and pay for their tax disc without considering the wider costs of motoring, such as the impact on the environment, road damage and accidents.

“Advocates of road pricing claim that it reflects the full costs of vehicle usage and would therefore encourage some motorists to change their behaviour. However, opponents believe it would be discriminatory because wealthy motorists would simply pay the tolls while poorer people would be unable to afford them.

“However, electronic toll systems already operate in some parts of the world, such as Australia, the USA, France, Italy and Norway, and could be progressively introduced in the UK if an equitable system could be devised.”

Miss Smye believes the future of road pricing in Britain may depend on the success of London mayor Ken Livingstone’s plans to introduce a £5 charge on vehicles entering central London between 7 am and 7 pm with cameras at 112 entry points checking registration plates.

September 2001

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