Motorway tolls to be ring-fenced for network: Department of Transport wins its fight to maintain trunk routes with cash from the charges to be introduced in five years

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MONEY raised from electronic tolls on motorways, which are expected to raise at least pounds 700m a year, will be 'ring-fenced' and used to maintain and improve the motorway network.

The decision, announced yesterday, is a victory for the Department of Transport over the Treasury, because the tolls will be treated as charges rather than taxes which would go into the Government's revenue pool.

The first electronic tolling gantry will appear on a British motorway within a year, but only to test equipment. Motorists will not be paying until 1998, when car drivers may face a charge of 1.5p a mile.

'The proceeds of charges would be applied only to the construction and operation of the charged network, ' John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, told the House of Commons yesterday as he gave further details of the toll scheme outlined in the Budget.

Treasury ministers had strongly opposed this direct use of user charges, and the wrangling with the DoT went on up to the last minute. But yesterday, Mr MacGregor said he had the full support of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr MacGregor said that the Government had rejected the alternatives of toll booths - which would require land and cause traffic delays - and permits, which would not justify the cost of introducing them as an interim measure.

But he admitted: 'Electronic tolling, despite all the work that has been done, has not yet been proved on the scale necessary to introduce it on a high-speed network of the size and complexity of this country.'

A research programme is to begin immediately so that electronic tolling, which on current figures would raise about pounds 700m a year, can be introduced in five years.

Mr MacGregor said: 'As soon as possible, we will invite the private sector to send us details of the relevant technology which they would be prepared to demonstrate.'

This equipment, which will include electronic 'smart' cards and roadside sensors, will be assembled into complete systems on a high- speed test track and later on gantries over a stretch of motorway.

The smart cards, or electronic tags, react to signals as they pass the sensors without cars stopping or slowing. The toll is automatically calculated and either deducted from a pre-paid card or charged to the user's account.

Mr MacGregor said that trials on the stretch of motorway, which has not yet been selected, should start within a year.

The charges being considered by the Government are 1.5p per mile for cars and light goods vehicles, and 4.5p per mile for lorries. Mr MacGregor agreed yesterday that if tolls were too high this would drive traffic on to non-motorway routes.

He said that by deciding to use all the tolls to improve the motorway network, the Government was supporting the principle that the user should pay. Without the work, a large part of the motorway network would face severe congestion by early next century.

He said: 'It would put the charges on those who actually use motorways rather than the near 50 per cent of road users who rarely or never travel on the network.'

His announcement was welcomed by the Freight Transport Association. Richard Turner, its policy director, said: 'It meets the twin objectives of raising revenue and minimising congestion in a fair manner.'

But environmental groups criticised the Government. Roger Higman, transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: 'This plan will create a two-tier road system letting fat cats drive on fast tracks while the public at large chokes in never-ending jams.'

Jeffrey Rose, chairman of the Royal Automobile Club, said: 'After Tuesday's swingeing Budget, the RAC can support the idea of electronic charging only if the scheme is fair to the motoring public. Motorists must not be driven off the motorway network on to unsuitable and unsafe rural roads due to excessive levels of charging.'

Richard Diment, director of the British Road Federation, said: 'Motorway charging will not bring in any new revenue this century, and so cannot make up for cuts in the Budget.'