Government shrugs off MPs' attack on motorway charging

Warnings by the House of Commons Transport Committee about the potential adverse environmental effects of motorway charging have left the Government apparently undaunted in its determination to proceed with the scheme. It has rejected the idea that higher fuel duties could be an alternative source of funds for new roads - and has shown no sign of deviating from the "predict and provide" approach to road building recently criticised by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP).

The Committee's report on the Department of Transport's plans to introduce electronic motorway charging warned that tolls could lead to "totally unacceptable" environmental impacts by diverting traffic onto free alternative routes. No charging scheme should proceed, it said, unless the Government had carried out further studies and demonstrated clearly how it proposed to tackle the problem (ENDS Report 235, p 27 ).

The Government's response to the Committee is adamant that "tolling is a key part of any policy to tackle congestion on motorways".1 However, it accepts that relatively low tolls may need to be set on parts of the network where diversion "is likely to be a particular problem", and also sees attractions in setting a tariff to encourage travel at less congested times.

The DTp plans to carry out more detailed modelling work on the impact of tolls on traffic diversion. However, the response is dismissive of the Committee's suggestion that roads other than motorways be tolled.

The Committee had also concluded that Ministers regarded tolls principally as a potential new source of finance, and suggested that increased fuel duty might be a simpler option. However, the Government rejects this because it would be "inequitable" to require all road users to contribute to a network that many rarely use.

The Government has pledged that the proceeds of charging will be "applied only to the construction and operation of the charged network". However, it concedes that "it is likely that Ministers will take some account of the proceeds of tolling" when deciding the overall level of public expenditure on roads.

In its recent attack on the Government's "sustainable" transport policy, the RCEP called for massive cuts in the roads programme - and particularly new road schemes (ENDS Report 237, pp 14-18 ). The Commission was particularly damning about the DTp's "predict and provide" approach, which assumes that forecast growth in traffic must be accommodated by extending and upgrading the road network.

A report by the DTp's Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment is believed to confirm the RCEP's view that new roads merely stimulate further increases in traffic.

However, comments by Transport Secretary Dr Brian Mawhinney when announcing the Government's response to the Transport Committee gave little sign of any imminent departure form the predict and provide logic. "Without improvements to the motorway network, congestion will cause diversion of traffic to happen spontaneously," he said. "Tolling can contribute to tackling the problem of congestion by enabling more new road capacity to be provided than would otherwise be the case."

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