Plan for private operators raises spectre of road tolls


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The Independent Online

Responsibility for running motorways and main roads will be handed to private companies under plans to be announced today by David Cameron.

The aim is to increase the money available for Britain's busiest routes and tackle congestion by putting the private sector in charge of repairing worn-out surfaces and crumbling bridges. But the AA condemned the move as a step towards privatisation and raised fears that it would lead to road tolls.

The plans emerged ahead of Wednesday's Budget, which is expected to give fresh impetus to improvements to the national infrastructure. The Coalition envisages investors bidding for lengthy leases to run motorways and major trunk roads. Although the routes represent only 3 per cent of the road network, they carry a high proportion of the nation's road traffic, including nearly all the freight.

Successful bidders would pay upfront for the lucrative leases and would be guaranteed a yearly payment from the Government for maintaining the roads. In return, they would have to demonstrate to an independent regulator that they are maintaining high standards and reducing traffic jams.

They would not be allowed to levy tolls on existing roads, but could charge them on new routes. It was not clear last night whether tolls would be permitted on roads that have been substantially improved or widened.

The Highways Agency, which is currently in charge of major roads, has an annual budget of £3bn – about half of what the Treasury earns from road tax.

The Government refuses to describe the proposals as a privatisation, arguing that the roads will ultimately remain in state control.

Edmund King, the president of the AA , said he favoured some reform of the Highways Agency but added: "It is a big leap from reform of the Highways Agency to new ownership and financing models for roads. The Government has indicated that tolling may only apply to new capacity, but this could be the thin end of the wedge, leading to full privatisation and road pricing.

The Treasury and the Department for Transport will carry out a feasibility study with a view to reporting back to Mr Cameron in the autumn.