Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has told leading industry figures the scheme could work with the use of satellite-based tracking technology. He was speaking at the launch of a debate on tackling Britain's future road transport needs and alleviating congestion, while enabling companies to carry out business efficiently.
He told an audience of industry heads, motoring organisations, pressure groups and academics that while there is growing use of alternative transport, more needs to be done.
Darling said: 'It seems to me that in order to deal with the pressures over the next 20-30 years, we ought to look at the opportunities that are now being presented to us with new technology in order to deal with the pressures that we face.
'Pricing for roads is just one of those matters I think we need to look at. It's not a solution on its own, but I do think this is an opportunity for us to look at the new technology and whether or not, as a result of it, we could actually offer people a better deal than they have at the present time.'
He emphasised that the debate was at a very early stage and the meeting in London, also attended by Transport Ministers John Spellar and David Jamieson, was intended to be the beginning of a long discussion process.
Darling added: 'I am in no doubt that if we look 20 to 30 years ahead, and that's the sort of timescale that we are looking at, that we have a choice. We either simply try to build ourselves a problem that I don't believe is acceptable either in cost terms or in environmental terms, or we start looking at alternative ways of dealing with the pressures we face.'
Other speakers at the seminar on demand management included Tim Matthews, Chief Executive, Highways Agency, who said investment would continue on improving the roads and managing traffic more effectively, including trials of vehicles using the hard shoulder during peak hours.
ROAD TOLLS – AGAINST
MOTORING organisations have warned that the public and business drivers may not accept a move to road tolls.
David Wallace, director of AA Business Services, said the development of a toll-road alternative to the M6 was already causing concern.
He said: 'This road was initially going to be paid for out of the public purse and was dropped because it was too costly, despite the £40 billion already paid each year in motoring taxes. Now motorists forced into using the new road will have to pay for it in tolls, and many will be business travellers.'
The proposed charge of £2 for cars and £5 for vans using the 27-mile M6 Toll Road, anticipated to increase to £3 and £6 respectively within five months, is on a par with toll roads in Europe. For example the 60-mile stretch from Tours to Poitiers in France costs £6.62 and the 30-mile drive from Barcelona to Manresa is £3.50.
It is expected that up to 75,000 vehicles will use the new M6 Toll Road each day out of the 200,000 that use the existing motorway.
The AA believes that while the new road should provide some long-overdue relief to the congested M6, many drivers will not be diverted on principle.
Wallace added: 'AA research has shown that many motorists will opt to use this road once or twice each week, rather than as a part of their daily commute. Motorists also suspect this road could signal the introduction of similar toll motorways. Without tax cuts elsewhere, this motorway must remain a one-off scheme.'
ROAD TOLLS – FOR
AN influential research body has thrown its backing behind the use of road tolls as a fairer alternative to motoring taxes. The Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) said current taxes disadvantaged low income households.
Transport specialist and ippr associate director Tony Grayling said: 'Road tolls varied according to the type of road, time of day and level of congestion would be fairer to low-income rural motorists, as well as effective in cutting congestion.
'Motorists who travel on the most congested roads at peak times would pay more, while those who use roads that are less busy or off peak would pay less.'
Julie Foley, transport research fellow at ippr, who is leading a major research project on road user charging, said: 'With the review of the Government's 10-year transport plan underway, Alistair Darling's announcement is timely. Britain's roads are becoming increasingly overcrowded.
'In some city centres and on major motorways there is virtual gridlock at peak travel times. Road user charging presents the most important way of cutting congestion.'
The ippr has long argued for road user charging.
The organisation advocated congestion charging for London in a 1989 ippr pamphlet which stated: 'It is the absence of road pricing, not its introduction, that is unfair.'