British motorists face paying a new charge for every mile they drive in a revolutionary scheme to be introduced within two years.
Drivers will pay according to when and how far they travel throughout the country's road network under proposals being developed by the Government.
Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, revealed that pilot areas will be selected in just 24 months' time as he made clear his determination to press ahead with a national road pricing scheme.
Each of Britain's 24 million vehicles would be tracked by satellite if a variable "pay-as-you-drive" charge replaces the current road tax.
In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Mr Darling warned that unless action is taken now, the country "could face gridlock" within two decades.
Official research suggests national road pricing could increase the capacity of Britain's network by as much as 40 per cent at a stroke, he said.
The rapid uptake of satellite navigational technology in cars is helping to usher in the new "pay-as-you-drive" charge much sooner than had been expected. Figures contained in a government feasibility study have suggested motorists could pay up to £1.34 for each mile they travel during peak hours on the most congested roads.
Although a fully operational national scheme is still considered to be a decade away, Mr Darling said local schemes could be up and running within five years. Manchester is considered a front-runner, with local authorities in the Midlands and London also pressing to be considered for a £2.5bn central fund to introduce the change.
Most of the necessary technology already exists. Lorries will be tracked by satellite and charged accordingly from 2007. The main obstacle to constructing a scheme to track Britain's 24 million private vehicles is public opinion, and Mr Darling is determined to start making the case now.
"You could dance around this for years but every year the problem is getting worse," he said.
"We have got to do everything we can during the course of this Parliament to decide whether or not we go with road pricing. Something of this magnitude will span several parliaments and you need 'buy-in' not just from political parties but also from the general public.
"Drivers have got to see that they benefit," he said, adding that one of the "weaknesses" of the congestion charging scheme introduced in the capital by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was that it delivered a "general benefit not a particular benefit". Motorists could feel they are paying a penalty to support buses they do not use.
The national road-pricing scheme, by contrast, has got to work so there's "something in it for me", said Mr Darling in advance of a keynote speech on the issue this Thursday.
Despite his insistence that the scheme would lead to no overall increase in the level of taxation as road taxes and fuel duties are reduced or abolished, it is bound to prompt fresh claims that Labour is waging a "war on motorists".
Some campaigners, meanwhile, are pressing Mr Darling to introduce new levies on individual roads immediately, using existing microwave technology or tolls. But that would force traffic on to quieter roads while entrenching opposition to a national scheme, ministers believe.
However, new and expanded roads are likely to see innovations such as car-sharing lanes, available to single drivers only if they pay a premium.
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