27 February 2002
Drivers face road charge
Monthly bills for motorists in transport revolution
Joanna Walters, transport editor
Sunday February 24, 2002
All cars will be fitted with a 'big brother' satellite tracking meter to charge drivers up to 45p a mile for every journey taken under radical plans to slash congestion on British roads.
The scheme, proposed by the Government's independent transport advisers, would see drivers handed monthly bills charging them for every single journey.
In a landmark report to be given to Ministers tomorrow, the Commission for Integrated Transport will recommend using existing Global Positioning System satellites to track vehicles via electronic 'black boxes' fixed to the dashboard of all vehicles.
The information recording the movements of motorists would be beamed back to computers at the various highway authorities or to a private company contracted to the Government - but with strict controls to protect privacy.
Prices would be set and adjusted periodically according to levels of congestion and could range from 45p a mile per car for central London in the rush hour to a penny a mile on rural roads. The average weekday charge would be 3.5p per mile on motorways and 4.3p a mile on other roads, with travel free off-peak and on quiet roads.
Tomorrow the commission will propose universal road pricing and tell Ministers that such a scheme could cut traffic levels by 5 per cent and almost halve congestion within 10 years.
In its report, the commission will warn that even huge improvements to train services and bus routes and massive road-building projects would not be enough to clear Britain's choked roads.
Professor David Begg, the commission chairman, told The Observer: 'We have the worst traffic jams in Europe. Without congestion charging we are not going to solve it - we can never road-build our way out of this or provide enough public transport.'
Begg said that even doubling the capacity of Britain's train, tram and bus network - a near-impossible task - would only absorb five years' worth of traffic growth before the roads became gridlocked again.
The report will recommend scrapping vehicle excise duty - the annual road tax disc - and reducing fuel duty by between 2p and 12p a litre in return for the launch of road pricing. It wants the Government to make motoring taxes fairer by linking them to congestion rather than car ownership or flat-rate fuel duty, which penalises rural motorists.
Drivers and hauliers who insist on commuting or delivering in the rush hour and using motorways at the busiest times would end up paying hundreds of pounds in additional costs, while others would save money.
The Government is also set to launch road-pricing for all lorries driving in Britain within two years. Trucks will be charged on the basis of the distance they travel, weight and emissions, with cleaner-engined vehicles paying less.
A senior source familiar with the proposals said the scheme was a 'Trojan horse' for universal road pricing, and if it proved successful for heavy goods vehicles it could be extended to cars by 2010.
Despite a denial by the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the source said: 'This is being driven by the Treasury, not Transport. Chancellor Gordon Brown can see what congestion is doing to efficiency in commerce and industry and every time he meets business leaders they bang on about it.'
The Government is unlikely to welcome Begg's report at such a sensitive time. Ministers, and Transport Secretary Stephen Byers in particular, are under fire for the collapse of Railtrack and the sell-off of air traffic control, as well as failing to solve the wider transport crisis.
The motoring lobby is likely to accuse the Government of being anti-car if it supports the report.
But Begg has already warned that, without serious moves to persuade motorists to leave their cars at home, the Government will not even achieve its own modest target of reducing national congestion by 6 per cent in 2010.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone is expected to announce this week that he is going ahead with congestion charging for London in 2003 at �5 a day for cars. Vehicles will be tracked via roadside beacons and gantries that display prices - with satellite technology likely to be used at a later date.