To toll or not to toll? That is the question which has been raised today in response to the Campaign for Better Transport’s report on the success or otherwise of the M6 toll.
Thinking about the issue more broadly, the RAC Foundation which has researched governing and paying for England’s roads extensively believes motorists can benefit from road pricing schemes, so long as any system introduced replaces the existing tax regime.
At present, motorists pay £47 billion to the Exchequer each year and they deserve something in return: more reliable journeys on good quality roads. Without some intervention, road congestion is set to increase for the foreseeable future as a result of an increase in population and wider car ownership. If the way 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? Tolled roads are common on the continent and are paid for in addition to the existing tax base. They provide users with tangible benefits: reduced congestion and improved journey times. It is 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 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.
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 crucia that we move towards a different way of governing and paying for road use, which includes and provides potential benefits to everyone. CBT suggests spending more money on alternatives to driving and road maintenance. All good stuff, which is certainly needed – who would disagree? But, 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.