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RAC prof: Road charges can end the ripoff of motorists

Only if they aren't run by the government, though

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VED and fuel-duty cuts aren't green? But if we go green they'll vanish anyway

But Prof Glaister argues that road users are already being so massively ripped off with the current tax-disc and fuel duty (plus no money for roads) policy that it would be quite possible to win people over. He considers that it would be possible to offer serious cuts in road tax and fuel duty as an incentive to put up with road charges - say on the same level as the French or Italian motorways - especially if it was understood that the new road charges would be actually be spent on improving the roads.

According to the prof:

User charging is one element in a balanced package of measures designed to improve conditions on the road network—with the proceeds being used to fund investment in the system. It is not simply an additional revenue-raising tool for government.

It has often been argued that road pricing is also likely to impose unacceptable loss of privacy, as it would be hard to avoid the creation of massive databases of time-slugged vehicle locations. However, this has more or less happened anyway independent of any road pricing schemes - automatic numberplate recognition cameras (ANPR) have spread to cover most of the motorway system in recent years. Then, it is also technically possible to build an in-vehicle box which refers to its own internal maps to determine local speed limits or tolls but never uploads location data outside the vehicle.

Glaister for one thinks that it would be possible for the Treasury to still pocket hefty sums - perhaps not as much as it now does - and yet raise enough cash for a properly run, properly audited roads authority or corporation to do a proper job (his unsaid corollary would seem to be that it is hardly likely it could worse).

It's often suggested that road pricing could be used as a way of simply squeezing more out of the existing roads without building new ones - more would be charged at peak times, for instance, encouraging drivers to time their journeys when the roads are little used and so spreading traffic out more across the day or week. Glaister seems sceptical about this, however, suggesting that unless there were some visible payoff involved for drivers - eg, cheaper fuel or tax discs - they would never vote for this.

Unfortunately fuel duty and VED are also regarded by Greens primarily as a way of coercing people to use lower-carbon means of transport. There would be strong resistance to cuts here on environmental grounds, just as there usually are to the building of new roads.

But Glaister also raises the point that if environmental policies are successful there will in effect be a reduction in fuel and vehicle taxes anyway. If people move wholesale to the use of low-carbon vehicles the current fuel and disc revenues will disappear, creating a massive black hole in the government's accounts and turning the roads into a loss-maker like the railways. Something will have to replace road tax and fuel duty, says the prof, so it makes sense to start doing it now.

You can read the report in full here (pdf). ®

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