John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, said traffic management was a central goal, second only to raising revenue to build new roads.
Charges on some stretches would be raised during peak periods to deter drivers and alleviate congestion, he said in a speech to an international gathering of nearly 600 representatives of companies developing electronic toll systems.
He said such differential pricing was one of the key advantages of electronic charging. 'At present, for much of the day, the British motorway network is free-flowing, even at the most notorious congestion points. But there are times when we all try to use parts of the network at the same time.' He urged individual motorists to face the costs of this: 'Congestion, stop-start driving, frustration, waste of time and pollution.'
He said differential charging to smooth out peaks would help traffic flow more freely. Toll operators would be able to use the motorway network to its full potential.
Mr MacGregor said councils fearful that tolls would push traffic onto their roads should take heart from the fact that he intended to set prices low, at a few pence per mile, about one-fifth of the average in some European countries.
He said that although city road pricing was further away than motorway tolls, early motorway systems should be planned with a view to being extended to urban roads. At the very least, the technology behind the two pricing systems should be compatible.
Mr MacGregor also emphasised the need for toll systems to be compatible with those under test or already in place in the rest of Europe, so that the motorist could 'use whatever tag or card he needs in his home country in those other Community countries which have an electronic tolling system'. There are tolls in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
Britain has no plans for real tests on the roads for almost two years. During this time industry will take part in a research programme on tolling, for which the Government has put aside pounds 3m. Trials, on a few thousand cars on the M4 or M25, are not expected before 1996. The Government wants organisations that wish to take part to respond by the end of next month. It hopes to select two to three systems by next year. The risk in this timetable is that other countries will bring in systems earlier and establish de facto standards with which the UK will have to comply. However, Mr MacGregor said British companies were sufficiently ahead of international competitors that this need not be the case.
Motorists had a right to know the technology was up to the job, he said: 'Will it operate quickly, accurately and dependably during the evening rush on a rough winter's night on the M25 or the M6 when perhaps 10,000 vehicles or more pass along one carriageway within an hour?' Nevertheless, he said experts who predicted that the technology would not be ready until 1998 were 'almost certainly going to be proved pessimistic'. But it would take until 1998 to introduce the required legal changes.
Estimates suggest it will cost between pounds 1bn and pounds 1.5bn to put motorway toll systems in place throughout the UK. Revenue from these could reach as much as pounds 700m a year. Mr MacGregor has said this money will not go straight to the Treasury but will initially be used to meet installation costs, then to improve the motorway network and information systems.