Government postpones tolls in £7bn road building plan

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The Independent Online

Seven billion pounds is to be spent widening Britain's motorways but the Government has put off a decision to introduce nationwide road tolls for at least 20 years.

Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, who announced the plans yesterday, denied accusations that he was simply preparing the way for "bigger and better traffic jams on wider roads". He published a discussion document on the introduction of tolls aimed at tackling congestion, but indicated they would not be introduced for decades.

Critics of the Government said the policy amounted to yet another sign that Mr Darling had abandoned the 10-year plan announced by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, in the summer of 2000, which promised to get people out of their cars and on to public transport.

In yesterday's statement to the Commons, Mr Darling said that much of the 120-mile M25 was to be expanded from three to four lanes at a cost of £1.7bn.

There will also be improvements to the M1, M18, M62 and A1/A1(M) in Yorkshire. An additional £623m is to be spent on widening the M1 between the M25 and Milton Keynes to four lanes.

Mr Darling rejected plans for bypasses at Stourbridge and Wolverhampton in the West Midlands on environmental grounds, as well as five schemes on the south coast in Sussex. He also announced aid of up to £1bn for the West Midlands for the development of roads and public transport such as light rail and bus schemes.

Work will not start on most of the motorway projects before 2006 and the M25 expansion may not be completed for 10 years. Any introduction of road charging would have to wait even longer. The Transport Secretary said that no country in the world had introduced charging on the kind of scale that would be required for Britain's roads. Technically it was an "entirely different proposition" to charging in the capital, he said.

His announcement follows the completion of "multi-modal" studies commissioned by ministers during a moratorium on road building announced after Labour came to power in 1997. The studies were meant to lead to rail and other local transport schemes.

Stephen Joseph, director of the pressure group Transport 2000, said wider motorways would fail to solve congestion. He said: "It will simply put more cars on the road and make things worse in the long run. It will be bad for motorists and bad for the environment."

Mr Joseph said environmentally sensitive sites would be affected by the road expansion and that many people would face increased traffic noise and air pollution.

John Whitelegg, professor of sustainable transport at Liverpool John Moores University and an adviser on travel for the Green Party, said yesterday: "This is the last nail in the coffin of Labour's pretensions to any kind of integrated transport policy, or probably any green policy at all - you just can't make decisions like this in one breath and talk about tackling climate change in the other."

Tolls Worldwide

* France: Most of 5,000 miles of motorway have tolls. Tickets are issued at the start of each motorway and payments calculated on the distance travelled.

* Germany: Introducing a motorway charge this year on all lorries weighing 12 tons or more. The amount charged will be based on the number of axles and the emission class of the vehicle.

* United States: Vehicles are charged according to type, with a range of systems. Prices vary between states. Some states have no road tolls.

* Spain: Toll fees on expressways, but not on secondary roads. Charges are considered high.

* Australia: Private toll roads are being developed on main routes.