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4th January 1996
Page 5
Page 5, 4th January 1996 — WARNING BELLS ON ROAD TOLLS
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

The idea of having to pay more to use major British trunk roads is like the joke about a consultant. What's a consultant? A marl who borrows your wristwatch and then charges you for telling you the time. So it is with road tolls. Why should all of us pay extra for using national trunk roads when we're already putting in for more in tax than we're getting back? The amount of money raised every year through fuel and Vehicle Excise Duty is way above what's actually reinvested in maintaining or expanding our trunk road network by the Department of Transport. The difference is around 210bn per year. So why the underspend? The roads need the money—don't they? The first problem is that fuel duty and VED go directly into the Treasury. And as the men in charge at the Department of Trans-port are as concerned with political expediency as they are with ensuring that road users get their money's worth, it all makes for what the psychologists would call a "delicious tension."

Three years ago, faced with a capped budget and mounting traffic congestion, the DOT (with a little nudge from the Treasury} hit upon the bright idea of road tolls. Brilliant! Make road users pay to use the trunk network on top of what they're already putting into the pot. Unfortunately tolling by 2000 has been hit by the news that after initial tests on the equipment which would calculate charges, the best system has proved to be less than 98% accurate—the DOT can't guarantee that you will be correctly tolled. And the minimum accuracy level-99.98%—is still believed to be a long way off. Now rumours are going around that Transport Secretary Sir George Young is becoming disillusioned with tolling. As are 24 million road users...Meanwhile, as the boffins struggle to bridge the technological gap on tolling, the DOT's underspend remains. And the road network gets more congested. In 1983 the Civic Trust identified more than 650 "desperately needed" bypasses. As of last year 450 communities were still waiting. If the DOT thinks tolling will cut congestion it's acting like a company that brings in a consultant. It knows what the answer to its problems are, but no-one in the organisation has the courage to act upon it.


Organisations: Department of Transport
People: George Young

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