Motoring groups hostile to tolls

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The Independent Online
MOTORING organisations reacted with predictable hostility yesterday to the idea of motorway tolling. Charging was 'not acceptable', according to the AA, while the RAC said it would oppose it unless the motorist 'gets something back in return'.

The two organisations have consistently argued that motorists pay more than their fair share for the use of the roads.

Indeed, at face value they seem to have a point as revenues from motorists do far exceed the costs of roadbuilding. In 1991-92, motorists paid about pounds 10.8bn for duty on petrol and diesel and a further pounds 2.9bn on vehicle excise duty, making a total of pounds 13.7bn. Motorists also pay a total of more than pounds 4bn VAT on fuel and new cars but since VAT is an almost universal tax on expenditure, it is somewhat irrelevant to the argument. On the debit side, pounds 2.3bn was spent on building and maintaining national roads and pounds 3.3bn on local roads, a total of pounds 5.6bn.

Policing of motorists is reckoned to cost pounds 400m and there is the expense of accidents but there is a wide variation on the estimate of the cost.

The AA suggests that it is pounds 320m, but it takes a very narrow view, counting only the immediate medical expenditure. The Department of Transport, which has a formula assessing the value of a life at around pounds 700,000 and injuries according to their seriousness, and also takes into account social costs, reckons the cost of accidents is pounds 6.1bn.

Even with the DoT's estimate, the equation still favours the motoring organisations' argument - motorists spend pounds 13.7bn but receive only pounds 12.1bn in benefits and costs. However, the pro-motoring groups fail to take into account one other very big item of expenditure, the costs of servicing the debts created by the roads programme.

New railway investment is expected to earn a real rate of return of 8 per cent, while roads are not expected to pay for themselves in this way. If they were, one estimate suggests that the current value of the road network is pounds 90bn, which means that annually motorists should be paying pounds 7.2bn to give the required rate of return. Here the arguments get really technical. DoT officials argue that road and rail are not comparable in this way. Individual road users already pay for the capital cost and maintenance of their cars, while rolling stock and the track have to be paid for by the state-owned - at least for now - British Rail.

However, if it is accepted that the cost of servicing capital should be added in, it is possible to argue that motorists get away very lightly.

Then there is the environment. How much is Twyford Down worth? Attempts to value the environmental costs of road schemes are doomed to failure, as they are bound to be based on a series of imprecise value judgements. All that can be said with certainty is that roads and cars are undoubtedly damaging to the environment and road is proportionately more damaging than other forms of transport.