Motorway tolls 'will put lives at risk': MPs warn ministers that charges will choke unsuitable roads

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THE Government yesterday signalled its determination to press ahead with motorway tolls despite a critical report from a cross-party committee of MPs which warned they could lead to thousands of extra road deaths a year.

Tolls are likely to divert traffic to less safe and more environmentally sensitive roads, the Commons Transport Committee said, while possibly raising little extra cash for motorway building.

The Government's present plans, which could see tolls introduced in 1998, should be 'urgently reviewed and reconsidered', and 'should not go ahead' until it can demonstrate how it proposes to tackle the issue of diversion, the committee, chaired by the former Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Channon, said.

If the main aim of tolls was to raise extra funds to improve the motorway network then higher fuel duty would be 'easy and cheap to collect and extremely difficult to avoid', the MPs said. Selective cuts in vehicle excise duty would avoid penalising people in rural areas who have to drive - and higher fuel duty would not force motorists wishing to avoid tolls on to other roads.

The committee said more information would have to be provided before Parliament and the public would be convinced that electronic tolling was 'either desirable or workable'.

The report, however, was welcomed by Dr Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, who underlined the Government's intention to introduce tolls, with field trials of the technology starting next year. He said that, without the improvements toll funds would allow, 'the diversion of traffic which worries the committee will happen spontaneously'.

The committee - which included Peter Bottomley, a former transport minister - said studies suggest that tolls as low a 1.5p a mile for cars, and 4.5p for HGVs, could switch 10 per cent of traffic off motorways at peak periods near large cities, rising to 30 per cent during quiet periods.

Its report said such levels of diversion in the vast majority of cases would be 'totally unacceptable'. In addition, detailed independent studies on the likely increase in casualties from diversion must be published 'before any further steps are taken towards the introduction of tolls on motorways'.

The committee was unimpressed by Treasury arguments that extra fuel duty could not be earmarked for motorways, pointing out that other countries do it. Capital and running costs of electronic tolling would swallow 'a significant proportion of the revenue'. And the MPs said the Government failed to convince them that money raised from tolls will represent genuinely additional expenditure on roads, and will not be offset by cuts in spending from general taxation.

The Government plans to fit electronic tags to vehicles with road users billed, direct-debited, or charges deducted from pre-paid smartcards.

Jeffrey Rose, chairman of the RAC, said that safeguards which motorists needed before tolls were introduced 'are not there yet'.

The report led Friends of the Earth to demand that the privately-funded Birmingham Northern Relief Road be abandoned. Planned to be Britain's first tolled motorway, the 27-mile, six-lane road is out to a public inquiry.