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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
For whom the road tolls?
Closed motorway
Will a clear road ahead clear your pocket?
Lord Birt's controversial idea to build a network of toll motorways has again raised the issue of pay-as-you-go driving. Birt's thinking may not be as "blue-sky" as it seems.

Building an enticing network of toll roads to run parallel to the UK's most congested motorways has been damned by an unlikely alliance of motoring groups and green activists.

A UK toll booth
Tolled, not taxed?
The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) said the suggestion - from the prime minister's "blue-sky" thinker on transport, Lord Birt - would cost a staggering 750bn and involve eons spent seeking planning permission.

Friends of the Earth called the proposal - intended to draw drivers willing and able to pay tolls away from clogged roads - "an environmental disaster".

Doubtless, some motorists already saddled with fuel duty and road tax (the pay-per-car Vehicle Excise Duty or VED) will not take kindly to a two-tier road network which levies an extra charge on those wanting to cut - or merely be able to confidently predict - the length of their journey time.

Taxing question

However, the toll paying aspect of Birt's idea - if not the road building - may be far less radical than his "blue-sky" title might suggest.

Despite the UK motorist's evergreen response to traffic jams and potholes: "What do I pay my road tax for?" - the nation's car tax regime is already weighted towards fuel duties which make regular road users contribute more.

Here we go again - taxing the motorist because they are an easy target.

Ollie J, England
Road tolls have long been suggested as a way to ensure drivers who use our highways and byways the most also pay their share for road upkeep. The assertion that pay-as-you-go driving can cut congestion too is gaining support - even with the motorists who would be picking up the bill.

Drivers are overcoming their "historical" opposition to road charging, suggests the RAC's recent Motoring Towards 2050 report. If other taxes were re-adjusted, "most would find road tolls acceptable".

While the average British driver pays a total tax burden on a par with counterparts in Ireland, Denmark, Italy and France, the UK's roads are significantly more congested.

Jam today, jam tomorrow

While almost a quarter of British trunk roads are fouled up for more than an hour a day, fewer than one in 20 French and no Danish roads experience similar gridlock, according to the Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT).

"At the moment we have a very blunt and unfair taxation system," says Professor David Begg, the head of the independent advisory.

A farmer at the fuel protest
Tolls may calm rural fuel duty anger
Bringing tolls to all types of roads - and not just Lord Birt's "super motorways" - would save motorists a valuable 219 million hours a year when they would otherwise have been stuck in traffic.

The commission approached the question of road charging not by assuming it was thinking the unthinkable (Lord Birt's brief), but by noting that our roads are incongruously "the only public utility that are free at the point of use".

If the cost of road use were to be calculated like train tickets, telephone calls or electricity - drivers would no longer so unthinkingly crowd onto the same section of highway at the same time.

Waiting for off-peak

Just as most Britons wait for the cheap evening rates to kick in before chatting to friends on the phone, many drivers would be similarly canny in choosing the route and time of their journey - balancing urgency with cost.

The commission also said in February that road tolls would more realistically spread the varying cost of road use across the driving public.

Rural dirt track
The cheapest option?
Rural drivers - who spearheaded September 2000's revolt against fuel duties - pay disproportionately for the costs incurred by the nation's motorists, in effect subsidising those who use our congested, polluted, noisy and crumbling urban roads.

Varying road tolls depending on location and traffic volume would reduce the tax burden for country drivers, whose roads cost society perhaps 25 times less if traffic jams and exhaust fumes are included.

However, it might well require some more "blue sky" thinking to prevent other toll-hit motorists using these cheap roads as rat-runs. Lord Birt?

Tell us how to make traffic jams a thing of the pastIn a jam
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Should the UK build toll motorways?



3534 Votes Cast

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