Ministers fear motorists' backlash against toll roads

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The Independent Online
Charging motorists to use the roads is seen by many as the answer to Britain's looming transport crisis. But ministers appear to be shying away from road tolls. Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, explains why.

Ministers are keen in public to say the Government wishes to cool the public's passion for the motor car. But despite clogged streets and worsening pollution, in private they have dismissedroad tolling. "It will take 10 years to get the infrastructure in place," said one. "It is not as simple as many people think. You run into problems such as just displacing traffic onto other roads. There is also the question of how much you charge."

It is understood ministers will instead tax "non-residential" parking to curb congestion and raise cash by cracking down on company cars.

This has not stopped other European governments pressing ahead with congestion charging schemes. Road-pricing schemes have been operated for more than 5 years in Norway and motorists in the Netherlands face tolls by 2001.

Officials have considered two forms of congestion charging. The first is motorway tolling, which ministers point out would involve "large capital costs".

The other, more likely option is for local authorities to set up "urban tolls". Many councils - including Edinburgh, Bristol and Aberdeen - have put forward innovative schemes suggesting congestion as a way of paying for public transport and road improvements.

And councillors have been supported by business. Charges of pounds 5 on the A1, A19, A66 and A167 were recently suggested by the North East Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry.

"If we do not get road-tolling or some other scheme then we will see traffic in the area grinding to a halt," said Michael Bird, the chamber's chief executive.

What ministers fear is backlash from a public paying for a commodity - road space - that they took for granted as free. The Government will instead use the pounds 400m Birmingham Northern Relief Road, which links the heavily congested M6 to the M42, as the litmus test for road pricing.

The 27-mile road will only be completed in 2002. No estimates for the level of charge have been made, but experts estimate the road will need to rake in pounds 40m a year to pay for itself.