Motorway toll lanes could kill road-pricing

business and industry, economy, transport

Author(s):  Laura Bradley
Published date:  21 Nov 2011
Source:  Total Politics blog

In a bid to boost the private sector the government are considering introducing toll lanes as part of their plans for growth. Many will be uncomfortable at the idea of affluent drivers speeding along in ‘express lanes’ in the current economic climate and toll lanes don’t represent a fairer or more efficient approach to charging for road travel. But the principle of road pricing does.

Under the plans, motorists will have the option to pay to avoid congestion – offering private firms additional incentive to build new roads. This may be welcome in light of recent warnings on traffic growth. The Department for Transport forecasts an increase in traffic of 43 per cent by 2035 stemming from a projected population growth of 10 million in that period. But trends in car use bring into question the assumptions behind traffic forecasts. Evidence suggests that the number of car journeys taken and the distance travelled by individuals in cars peaked in 2005 and could now be on the decline. This has been dubbed the ‘peak car’ phenomenon.

Motorists hoping to avoid congestion would be expected to pay twice for the journey they make – paying fuel duty in addition to the lane toll. It would also result in a two-tier system of travel, where only those able to afford the additional cost would have the opportunity to reap the time saving benefits. The current system of charging road transport is already regressive, with fuel duty taking up a greater proportion of lower incomes.

Road pricing has the potential to achieve much more than these plans would allow. For example a system in which payments depend on when and where journeys are made would give motorists the ability to influence the costs they incur and would mean greater efficiency of road use, reducing overall congestion. In light of increasing vehicle efficiency and ambitious targets on electric vehicle up-take, road pricing also offers a workable alternative for fuel duty. Currently, two per cent of the UK’s GDP comes from fuel duty, but recent projections by OBR and IPPR show that this is likely to fall dramatically – potentially reaching below one per cent of GDP by 2030. If the Government wants to retain some of its income from road transport in the future, a road pricing system may present the best way to go about it.

This is why IPPR has long supported the principle of road pricing. In fact, our first ever report in 1988 called for the introduction of a London congestion charge, and subsequent projects have highlighted the potential benefits of it s introduction. Most recently, we have recommended that road pricing is trialled in the UK along the same lines as a trial undertaken in Oregon in 2001. The Oregon trials allowed motorists to ‘opt in’ to paying a fee based on mileage instead of fuel tax, paying at the pump in the same way as other motorists. The system was successful – 91 per cent of participants said they if they had the option they would continue using it.   

The system under consideration shows that the government is not being bold enough in its approach to road pricing. Although they have plans to introduce road user charging for foreign HGVs, they have explicitly ruled a wider scheme out for other motorists. The introduction of toll lanes may help to stimulate growth but the approach ignores wider transport issues. It would worsen the equity in road travel whilst failing to secure the greater efficiency of road use that an alternative system could generate.