Road tolls of £1.34 per mile may be in place in five years

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A huge pilot scheme to test the Government's plans for nationwide road tolls will form part of the biggest transport project ever attempted in Britain.

A huge pilot scheme to test the Government's plans for nationwide road tolls will form part of the biggest transport project ever attempted in Britain.

Government sources said yesterday that Leeds, Manchester or the West Midlands could be the guinea pigs for a congestion charge of up to £1.34 a mile suggested by a controversial consultation paper last summer.

The Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, will register on Thursday his determination to introduce a parliamentary Bill before the next election, which will make the pilot scheme possible within five or six years.

When the Government document was published last year, sceptics doubted whether there was any real intention to introduce the tolling system.

But Mr Darling told yesterday's Independent on Sunday: "You could dance around this for years, but every year the problem is getting worse. We have got to do everything we can during the course of this Parliament to decide whether or not we go with road pricing."

Under the system, a "black box" would be inserted in every car to monitor how far the car was travelling, on which road and at what time of day. The data would then be transmitted via satellite to a central computer that would decide how much the motorists should pay.

In order to reduce congestion, a motorist travelling on the M25 in rush hour would normally pay the premium rate of £1.34. If he or she were driving on a B road at 2am they would pay as little as 2.4p, according to last summer's report.

It is intended that the levy will replace fuel duty. But Mr Darling was more equivocal about the abolition of car tax - something he said would be scrapped in briefings last year. That is now just a "possibility".

Speaking at a conference sponsored by the Social Market Foundation this Thursday, Mr Darling will reiterate his conviction that a national consensus will need to be built in the next Parliament if the scheme is to win public acceptance. He will warn that without a system to encourage people to drive during "off- peak" hours or to travel on public transport, Britain faces "LA-style gridlock".

Mr Darling will acknowledge that a scheme on the scale being contemplated by his department has never been tried anywhere before. Road pricing systems operate in Australia and America, but they are tiny in comparison.

Germany has introduced a nationwide toll system for lorries using satellite technology, and Britain is due to follow suit in 2008. But there are only 500,000 lorries on British roads, compared to 25 million cars.

Mr Darling will set out his belief that satellite navigation kits will be fitted as standard in every car in 10 years' time, and that the technology could be used for the road charge.

Significantly, there was no opposition from the Conservatives. While Alan Duncan, Shadow Transport Secretary, warned that it should not be "another stealth tax", he said Tories accepted the need for "modern solutions" to the problems of traffic congestion.

Bert Morris, director of the AA Motoring Trust, said: "It's feasible, the question is, is it politically acceptable? Will people affected think they are better off or worse off?"

Tony Bosworth, of Friends of the Earth, said the initiative could play a vital part in tackling Britain's transport crisis, but it was no "magic wand". He pointed out that national road pricing would not be introduced for years. "We need action now," he said.

Tony Grayling, assistant director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and a former government transport adviser, said ministers would need to decide what to do with the revenue raised. "Do you use it to reduce motoring taxes, such as vehicle excise duty or fuel duty - which I think the Government is mooting - or do you ring fence it for spending on improving the transport system? Alternatively, it could go into the general tax coffers, which wouldn't be particularly popular," he said.

Terence Bendixson, secretary of the Independent Transport Commission at the University of Southampton, said the scheme could be beneficial to the environment, but that "problems include the effect on low-income drivers and the possibility of a technological fiasco."