MacGregor trip heralds tolls for motorway users

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The Independent Online
THE PLACE: Cambridge. The time: the late 1990s. Susan is driving to Manchester, and things are going badly. As her car crawls through the rush-hour traffic, the machine the size of a couple of Mars bars on her dashboard is going 'beep' too often: each 'beep' is costing her money.

In the mid-1990s Cambridge had pioneered the world's most sophisticated system of road pricing, to combat the jams ruining the city centre. Instead of ringing the city with tollbooths, the authorities wanted to penalise drivers only at times of congestion, so a network of sensors across the city's roads records how fast each car is moving, and automatically deducts money (another 'beep') if the car, caught in a jam, moves too slowly.

The electronic display shows that the 'smart card' Susan has inserted into the dashboard machine is running out of credit. Suddenly an old lady steps on to a pedestrian crossing ahead - no time to spare - swerve around her, and here's the sign saying 'Thank you for visiting Cambridge'. Phew. One more 'beep' would have meant a hefty fine.

Susan pulls into a service station to recharge her card before tackling the motorway: pounds 40 should be enough to get to Manchester, and two pounds 20 notes and the card slide into the special box. Luckily, her smart card is recognised by all Britain's different road schemes - the Government had insisted on uniformity.

Away up the M1, and thoughts of breakfast loom: motorway service station, or something at Northampton? The food in town will be better and cheaper, even given the pounds 2 cost of getting through the electronic tollbooth on the outskirts.

She uses the keypad attached to her carphone to book a parking space in town; the display gives her directions on how to find the right car park.

Back on the motorway and the 'beeps' come every five miles, until Junction 4 on the M6: will she go for the new private motorway, the Birmingham Northern Relief Road ( pounds 8 for 30 miles), or stay on the clogged M6 ( pounds 1 for each five miles)? Time is money, and she opts for the relatively traffic-free private road. . . .

This tale is not just fantasy. Last week, the Secretary of State for Transport, John MacGregor, went to Sweden and Norway to examine road pricing schemes. He distinguishes carefully between 'congestion charging' - pricing schemes in urban areas - and tolls for inter-urban motorways. During the trip he was lukewarm about congestion charging, finding that the technology was not ready because of the difficulties of enforcement on wide roads where cars dodge between lanes.

He is, however, enthusiastic about motorway tolls, seeing them as the only new way of paying for the national roads programme at nearly pounds 1.5bn a year.

A Green Paper is due next month, setting out the toll options. It will discuss whether motorists already pay enough for road use - through fuel taxes and the standard charge Road Fund Licence - or whether they are, in comparison with rail users, enjoying a free ride.

Mr MacGregor has ruled out conventional tollbooths, which force cars to stop and so cause more jams, but he was warned by Swedish officials who are testing electronic pricing schemes in Gothenburg that to fit the 25 million UK vehicles with smart-card technology would take at least five years, if the political will were there to make a start now. It isn't.

However, the Green Paper may suggest in the interim a system such as Switzerland's, where motorway users pay a lump sum annually. We will soon have to get used to the idea that the freedom of the road doesn't come cheap.

(Map omitted)