Commentary: Smooth road to new revenue

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Germany's government announced yesterday that from 1994 drivers will have to pay an annual levy to use its overburdened motorways - thereby discouraging their use and raising money for the German railway network. This idea could usefully travel.

If the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, is to balance the Government's budget in the medium term, he will have to find new sources of revenue for future years. Charging for use of Britain's motorways and major roads would make a useful, if modest, contribution. The French government, for example, raises pounds 2bn a year from motorway tolls.

There are side effects - both good and bad. Encouraging people to make longer journeys by train rather than car would help make a newly privatised British Rail more attractive to operators and investors. The environmental effects are less clearcut - encouraging people to switch from motorway to rail is beneficial, but from motorway to smaller roads would simply make things worse.

Rather than charging tolls on existing roads, the Government is encouraging the private sector to build its own and charge tolls for their use. This has met with limited success - recession has seen the private sector lose interest in most of the proposed schemes. The furthest advanced is the Birmingham northern relief road, where a tender has already been awarded. But even here construction of the first toll booth is a long way off.

Private contractors are nervous of competing with existing routes, preferring the near-monopolies of river crossings.

But if their public competitors were to be allowed to charge tolls, private roadbuilders could be more confident that customers would come their way. The pricing of major public roads could soon encourage new building.