On a fact-finding visit to Norway to look at road-pricing schemes, Mr MacGregor said that even the current record levels of investment in the national roads programme, pounds 1.5bn per year, would not be enough to ensure that increased traffic growth could be coped with.
Mr MacGregor said that he would not rule out charging for the use of motorways 'before the end of this Parliament'. He signalled his intention of pressing ahead with examining this controversial policy by saying that the consultation period on a Green Paper on inter-urban road tolls, due to be published next month, 'would be relatively short'.
He is anxious to distinguish between the issues raised in this Green Paper, which will be confined to inter-urban roads, and those raised by what he now calls 'congestion charging' in cities like London. He ruled out any legislation on the latter within the lifetime of this Parliament.
Mr MacGregor knows the potential hazards of any attempt to impose new charges on motorists, as shown by the widespread hostility to the Oslo scheme that he visited yesterday. But he said: 'I am also aware of the challenges posed by the costs of the roads programme.'
He went on: 'The costs to public expenditure of the substantial roads programme that we all feel is necessary are such that we have the choice between a programme that stretches over a long period, or of finding a different way of funding it.' In Oslo, support for the scheme came from both the two main political parties, but Mr MacGregor will not only have to face opposition from the Labour Party, which has set out its stall against road pricing because it maintains that it will harm poorer road users, but also from motoring organisations such as the RAC, which has invited a group of MPs to Oslo later this summer.
Mr MacGregor said that the Green Paper, which he emphasised would be consultative and not prescriptive, would look at fundamental issues that needed to be resolved, such as 'invasion of privacy, what would make a scheme acceptable, what is the technological situation, and what exemptions there would need to be'.
In Oslo the only exemptions are ambulances, two-wheeled vehicles, the disabled and public transport. Lorries pay twice the pounds 1 fee. It was essential that new technology be used from the outset, he said, as toll booths would use too much land and cause serious congestion.
Although Mr MacGregor says that he has not made up his mind about toll schemes, sources within the Department of Transport accept that he has become much more amenable to the idea since he took over his present job in April last year.
Mr MacGregor said that, in meetings with his European transport counterparts, interest had risen considerably.
On road pricing in urban areas, Mr MacGregor was told by a Norwegian official that the price would have to be much higher than the pounds 1 charged in Oslo to deter motorists and encourage them to use public transport.
Today, Mr MacGregor who interrupted his tour to attend last night's Commons vote on VAT being imposed on fuel bills, will be visiting Gothenburg to study the technology that could be used for road pricing in towns where the scheme was being tested.
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