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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 May, 2003, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Will toll road scheme spread?

By Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

The experience of pulling up at a toll booth is a novelty for British drivers, unlike their counterparts abroad.

There are tolls for bridges and tunnels, like the Dartford Crossings and the Severn Bridge, and London drivers now pay a 5 congestion charge.

M6 Toll booth
Toll booths are a common sight on Continental roads

In general, however, Britain's roads are free at the point of use.

The M6 toll changes all that - but like Britain's other tolls it will remain an isolated example of the principle that drivers should pay to drive.

The proposals for a new motorway to relieve the M6 date back to 1980.

Only in 1989 was it decided that the new Birmingham Northern Relief Road would be built by a private company, and paid for through tolls.

The Conservatives seemed to be pioneering a new way of funding road improvements, but the scheme hit problems in 1997 when an alliance of local people and environmental groups challenged the road in the High Court.

M6 Toll map
The 27-mile road will cost 485m

They said the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had given it the go-ahead because, under the contracts for the scheme, the cost of cancelling it would be too high.

Some protestors took direct action, digging themselves into tunnels to hold up the construction. At one point nearly 200 police and bailiffs were called in to clear the way.

The High Court action ended in 1999 with defeat for the campaign. Full construction got underway two years later.

Charge too high?

The new road is designed to attract some of the 180,000 vehicles that use the existing M6 away from its jammed stretches north of Birmingham.

The question is, will it achieve that aim, and reduce some of the pressure?

Those representing haulage companies aren't sure. The Freight Transport Association believes some lorries will use it, but that the 11 full charge is too high.

M6 TOLL
27 miles long, three lanes
Follows junction 4 to 11 of M6
M6 was designed for 72,000 vehicles per day - it currently carries 180,000
New toll road will have 50 bridges, eight toll stations and new services

Other motoring organisations said drivers might pay to use it from time to time, but the cost could prevent them from making it a regular route through the Midlands.

In many ways the M6 toll is something of an anomaly in the country's road network.

It is unlikely there will be any more tolled roads of its kind built in the near future; the Conservatives' enthusiasm for toll booths isn't shared by the current government.

The debate has changed. Instead of providing big new roads to cope with the demand, Labour believes in smaller improvements, and widening what is already there.

Private companies may well be involved in the work, but they probably won't be paid through tolls.

The government is exploring the idea of charging drivers to use the roads - but more to dissuade them from doing so.

Satellite tracking

Following the success of the London congestion charge scheme, there is pressure for a countrywide system of charges.

Put simply, drivers would pay more to use the busiest roads. The problem with toll booths as a way of collecting the money is that they hold up the traffic rather than speeding it up.

Instead the government could use satellite navigation technology to detect which roads a car is using, and bill the driver accordingly.

But this would involve fitting every vehicle in the country with a satellite receiver, more science fiction than potential government policy.

Ministers continue to rule out any nationwide tolling scheme for at least the next eight years.

But they have accepted that traffic congestion can only increase in the future, so in the long term, something will have to be done.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Simon Monatgue
"Congestion charging is achieving most of its aims"



SEE ALSO:
New toll motorways 'plan' panned
19 May 02  |  UK News
Most drivers 'would pay tolls'
17 May 02  |  UK News
Road tolls 'inevitable'
02 May 02  |  UK News


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