The companies could be given the power to suggest new motorway schemes and be responsible for putting plans forward at public inquiries. They would also be responsible for meeting demand by widening them or building new ones.
The Green Paper argues that traffic is growing so fast that the new trunk and motorway roads programme, even though it is running at record levels of pounds 1.5bn per year, cannot keep pace. New sources of funding are therefore essential.
Recognising that any new taxes are likely to prove unpopular, the paper stresses throughout that all new money raised would be used only to pay for roads. Motorway use doubled during the 1980s and traffic growth forecasts suggest an increase of between 18 per cent and 30 per cent in mileage on all roads between 1991 and 2000.
Already, just over half the current pounds 23bn roads programme planned for the next 15 years is being devoted to motorways, including 650 miles of widening, the upgrading to motorway standard of the A1, and the extension of the M6 to Glasgow.
The Secretary of State for Transport, John MacGregor, said that motorway tolls would not be used to improve public transport, although if charges were made in urban areas, an idea being considered by the Department of Transport, he accepted that part of the revenue could be used to improve bus and train services, as it is in Oslo where road users pay around pounds 1 every time they enter the city. There is, however, concern from some of the motoring lobby about whether Mr MacGregor will be able to stick to that promise.
Edmund King, campaigns manager of the RAC, said: 'The real battle will be with the Treasury. The DoT will not be able to put forward a politically acceptable plan without agreement from the Treasury.' Other critics suggest that it would be difficult for the Department of Transport to stick to any promise because the Treasury would simply take into account the revenue from tolls when preparing the department's budget.
While the Government is seeking private finance for some projects, such as the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, currently the subject of a public inquiry, it recognises that few new roads could be financed from tolls alone, because of competition from existing free roads.
The Green Paper assesses whether the imposition of tolls would divert traffic from motorways and the trunk roads to minor roads. Five case studies covering different parts of the country suggest that the maximum charge outlined in the paper, 1.5p per mile for cars and 4.5p per mile for HGVs, 'might cause diversion of some 10 per cent in terms of vehicle miles at peak times'. Doubling the charge would broadly double the effect.
Ministers have emphasised throughout that the Green Paper is very much a discussion paper rather than a statement of intent. The paper therefore asks a series of questions such as whether charging should be applied in a uniform way across the country, whether motorists should know how much they are being charged for each journey and whether the Government needs to retain all its present functions for motorway planning.
The paper concludes by saying that 'no decisions have been taken, except to rule out conventional tolling for existing roads'. However, motoring organisations, the roads lobby and environmental groups are in no doubt that now road pricing is on the agenda, it is unlikely to go away.
Paying for better roads, Cm2200, HMSO, pounds 9.
Leading article, page 27
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