Technology tests for Britain's first motorway tolls were announced yesterday amid warnings that their introduction would be the motoring equivalent of the poll tax.
Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, said eight consortia had been selected to start two years of trials on the M3 near Basingstoke, Hampshire, next summer and that the first motorway tolls could be operating by the turn of the century.
Toll charges of 1.5p per mile for cars and 4.5p per mile for HGVs are expected to raise pounds 750m annually. Sir George said the money would be additional to current expenditure and would be used to improve and maintain the motorway network.
But the British Road Federation said that despite the Government's policy commitment to tolls, ministers' enthusiasm for a scheme that spelt political suicide was waning and they were already dragging their heels on implementation.
"I would put money on this not being a manifesto commitment at the next election," said Andrew Pharoah, campaign director for the federation, which represents thousands of companies and 13 million motorists.
"Even if the many technological problems can be overcome, there is an enormous political difficulty with the notion of charging retrospectively for roads that were previously free. That has never been attempted anywhere else.
"In Europe, tolls were only introduced on new roads. The motorways run through key political battlegrounds and most motorists believe that they pay too much in road and fuel taxes already."
Mr Pharoah said the technological difficulties were exacerbated because Britain had the largest and most complex motorway system in the world and it was used for short and medium-length trips as well as for long distances. Yesterday Sir George admitted that there was not yet a system operating which could deal with the speed and volume of traffic on British motorways. While Sir George played down the possibility of large numbers of vehicles switching to A and B roads to avoid toll charges, Mr Pharoah said there were environmental and safety risks associated with the diversion of traffic.
The AA and the RAC said that surveys showed that about 90 per cent of motorists considered motorway toll charging unacceptable.
"We believe the introduction of tolls is decades away," said Adrian Ruck, an AA spokesman, who compared the proposals to the poll tax. "And if it means paying more money for no extra benefits then the AA and our members would not support it. It would only make sense as part of an overall reassessment of motor taxes.
"Seventy-five per cent of the price of a gallon of petrol already goes to the Treasury and we have already paid for the roads four times over. Although pounds 24bn goes into the Treasury every year through fuel and vehicle tax, only pounds 7bn is ploughed back into the road system."
Mr Ruck said the elaborate diversions motorists had already made to avoid charges on bridges such as the Severn crossing proved that diversions from motorway tolls would present real environmental and safety problems. "It means traffic will transfer from motorways, the safest roads in Britain," he said. "Towns which have been bypassed by motorways will have major congestion problems."
An RAC spokesman said even if the technology could be perfected, it would be a brave government that introduced motorway tolls.
The Labour Party yesterday said the scheme was "misconceived" and "a tribute to the failure of 16 years of Tory transport policy". Motorway tolls would simply divert traffic to A and B roads, increase congestion and bring noise and pollution to residential areas. The Liberal Democrats said it was a "crazy" idea which would put great pressure on inadequate roads.
The Government's intention to introduce tolling on motorways was announced in November 1993. No charges will be levied during the motorway trials, which will only involve vehicles operated by or loaned to the Department of Transport.
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