For whom the road tolls?

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The Independent Online
After all the talk, introducing tolls on Britain's motorways seems an odd priority. In the days when John MacGregor was Transport Secretary, this government set a number of hares running in the hope that one of them would lead it to a radical solution to the problem of increasing traffic congestion. There were several options: road pricing, congestion charges in the city, building bypasses and widening roads such as the M25 to keep the cars and lorries away from the people. But now all these alternatives have fallen away and we are left with motorway tolls.

Can this be the answer? Well, that depends upon what is seen as the question in the first place. Who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this plan? Is it supposed to be the industrialist or the shopper who will profit from transport costs, which will drop, on balance, when goods move faster along empty motorways? Is it the residents of inner-city suburbs or those whose homes line the nation's arterial routes and who will be liberated from noise and pollution? Is it the asthmatics, the elderly and those suffering from bronchitis, heart trouble, headaches and eye and skin irritations who were recently advised to stay indoors and avoid strenuous exercise in the worst-affected areas during one of the worst episodes of air pollution recorded since the Fifties? The question, therefore, is, if you will pardon the pun, for whom the road tolls?

The Government's argument goes something like this. During the Eighties, the volume of traffic on Britain's motorways doubled. Congestion worsened considerably. The cost of transport is an important part of the price of almost everything we buy. Therefore, congestion wastes time and money and reduces British competitiveness. The biggest increases in traffic in the next decade are predicted for inter-urban routes. Therefore, motorway tolls would be good for the economy.

Hmm. But even if this were true - and the logical wiring seems loose in places - can this be enough? Is it part of a sensible overall policy on living with the motor car? Or is it rather a good way of raising money for the Exchequer - one and a half pence a mile for cars and four and a half for lorries over Britain's 2,000 miles of motorway would raise pounds 800m annually compared with the pounds 150m it costs to maintain the system.

Will motorway tolls really address the cost to the economy of traffic that at times moves in cities as slowly as it did in Victorian times? Will they reduce the exhaust fumes that fill the air over our cities with a summer smog and which blankets many rural areas with ozone? Will they shift some travellers and goods on to less-polluting, more cost-effective public transport? Or will they simply move them on to overcrowded routes, causing even more congestion, pollution and environmental aggravation?

Clearing motorways of all except the most economically efficient traffic does not add up to a sensible policy. There are arguments about the common good and about the environment which must be taken into account, too. Motorway tolls simply avoid facing up to the key problems. They may even make them worse.