Road tolls at core of transport strategy

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The Government backed the introduction of a nationwide system of road tolls yesterday which could cost motorists up to £1.34 a mile.

The Government backed the introduction of a nationwide system of road tolls yesterday which could cost motorists up to £1.34 a mile.

In a White Paper on transport, ministers committed themselves to building a public consensus in favour of "road charging" which could be in place in 10 years' time.

Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, said the charges would replace car tax and fuel duty. But he refused to be drawn on whether the total bill paid by motorists would increase.

Mr Darling's long-standing enthusiasm for tolls was reinforced yesterday by a document based on the deliberations of a wide spectrum of organisations from the AA to the environment group Transport 2000.

The Transport Secretary said that while local schemes, similar to the London congestion charge, were already feasible, the development of a nationwide system was "a massive and complex task".

However, he said doing nothing about traffic congestion was not an option and to duck the challenge on road pricing would be "irresponsible and would condemn future generations to endless delays and increasing environmental damage".

The report, Feasibility study of road pricing in the UK, estimated that a national scheme could cut congestion by half and save £12bn a year. The study suggested charges from 2.4p to £1.34 a mile depending on when and where the motorist was driving. But it added that only around 0.5 per cent of traffic would pay the highest charges.

Road protesters announced there would be new demonstrations unless roadbuilding was halted. A delegation to the Department for Transport today includes a representative from each of the major road protests of the 1990s.

The White Paper, which sets out options over the next 30 years, supersedes the 10-year plan announced by the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

The Government has abandoned targets set in the Prescott document including the objective of increasing the number of passengers using the rail network in the 10 years to 2010 by 50 per cent. Mr Darling conceded that the rise would be nearer 35 per cent. Officials said the objective now was to improve services rather than impose such targets. The Government had already conceded it would not meet its objective of reducing congestion by 2010 to levels below that of 2000.

The Transport Secretary said new light rail schemes would be encouraged, but said it cost more to provide such systems in Britain than elsewhere in Europe. He said the Government would not be supporting projects in Leeds and South Hampshire where public sector contributions had increased respectively from £355m to £500m and £170m to £270m.

The White Paper points out that nearly two thirds of journeys by public transport are by bus and that the Government is determined to improve provision. In most areas, arrangements that allow private companies a high degree of freedom would continue. However there should be greater scope for local authorities to determine routes, fares and frequency of services as part of integrated transport plans.

Mr Darling announced that a parliamentary bill would be introduced as soon as possible for Crossrail - the east-west link across London - although it would not be completed in time for the Olympics in 2012. Instead he announced £340m extra funding for transport to help London's bid for the games.

The Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said an agreement with the Treasury would enable the construction of the East London Line extension, transit schemes in East London and Greenwich and extensions to the Docklands Light Railway and its services, which would be a major boost to the bid.

It is understood the Treasury is keen to limit its contribution to the £10bn Crossrail route to £3bn with other contributions coming from private investment and a hypothecated land tax. No 10 has told prospective participants the political momentum behind the project is unstoppable and that the Treasury is attempting to find a solution to the funding problem. Some observers however are sceptical that there is any intention to press ahead with the link in the absence of funding proposals from the Government.

Reacting to the White Paper, Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, said the plan lacked targets and a clear programme for action. "We have been given a sense of direction but no convincing practical agenda for delivery."

A ROADWORTHY IDEA?

SUE WOMERSLEY, 47, Medical laboratory assistant from Leeds

Weekly mileage: 110

I don't object to putting tolls on major roads or at rush-hour times. However, I can't see the logic in fixing boxes to people's cars to register miles. How can you run something like that properly? It makes sense to pay to go on major roads, but if you are having to pay every two minutes when you're travelling, then I can see people getting annoyed. Most people would prefer larger, less frequent charges. And what about all the cost to bring it in? No doubt that will come from the taxpayer.

KATE PRATT, 21, English-French translator from Heaton

Weekly mileage: 50

The new charges will be better for me, because I don't drive a great deal and I don't think I should have to pay as much as those who do. The Government has to do something because some people hardly ever drive, and it would be fairer on them. My 50 miles a week are when I go to and from my parent's house in Alnwick on the A1. It is ridiculous that the main road to Edinburgh from England is a single carriageway. They keep promising to sort it. If there were toll booths, it would raise the money to get it dualled.

ERIC PRITCHARD, 50s, Taxi driver from Newcastle upon Tyne

Weekly mileage: 150

This is just another government "stealth" tax. It is nothing to do with making it a better or fairer system. The Labour Party must have worked out that they will make more money with this new plan. The system already takes everything you earn and they want us to pay them more and more. If I could see some of the money I pay going towards making the roads better it would not be so bad, but it is a disgrace. I'd hope as a taxi driver, providing a public service, I'd be exempt from this kind of charge. If not it will put a lot of us out of business.

MAIN PROPOSALS

*Ministers will try to gain public support for a nationwide road toll system.

*Road charging scheme would be technically feasible in 10 to 15 years' time.

*Motorists could pay between 2.4p and £1.34 a mile.

*Greater regulation for buses as part of integrated transport systems led by local authorities.

*Parliamentary bill to pave the way for the east-west Crossrail link in London.

*More light rail and tram systems, but withdrawal of support from some on cost grounds.

*Government abandons target of increasing number of rail passengers by 50 per cent in the 10 years to 2010.

*An extra £340m to improve transport to aid London's 2012 Olympics bid. The money will enable the East London Line extension to go ahead.

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