Road tolls 'essential' to avoid gridlock

The UK's road network requires a comprehensive overhaul if gridlock is to be avoided, a major business organisation warned today.

The Confederation of British Industry, a lobbyist that represents 80 per cent of the FTSE, claims that the highway network requires the same kind of ambitious vision that the three political parties have thus far saved for high speed rail.

A new report published by the CBI claims that congestion damages the UK's economy to the tune of £8bn a year, and suggested that it was critical investment in the highway network be maintained at a pre recession level – even if this means introducing controversial road tolling schemes.

Not all the CBI's suggestions were as deeply unpopular as this one, however. Some even had the unmistakable ring of common sense about them.

The report rightly pointed out that twenty per cent of the morning rush hour could be attributed to the school run, a figure which could be drastically reduced if the government committed to rolling out a national "yellow school bus" scheme.

In return for a £252m investment, the CBI believes this would effectively eliminate 130 million car journeys a year. Anyone who has found their commute considerably easier during the school holidays would certainly testify to a corresponding drop in traffic congestion.

The CBI also recommended regulating the road works which may be undertaken by local authorities. They account for half of all the work carried out on UK roads, but are not subject to the same oversight as the utility companies. The inability of most local authorities to properly manage even the most basic highway projects would suggest that this change is already long overdue.

Nevertheless, the Confederation's enthusiasm for road pricing, whether in the shape of city-centre congestion charging or user-based tolls, is a less attractive proposition to those who value their ability to drive about the country unhindered by the silent hand of selective taxation.

The report accepts that recent defeats at local referendums for congestion charging zones in Edinburgh and Manchester has shown the public's dissatisfaction for such schemes, but insisted that toll roads would be accepted if the additional fee guaranteed the construction of better highways.

The use of toll lanes was also highlighted as a possible solution. As the name suggests, these form part of the conventional motorway, but motorists are charged for using them to avoid traffic congestion. They are currently employed in the US, and the CBI believes that if private sector financing could be secured for the widening of the existing road network, the system could work here.

The Confederation's staunchly economic perspective is enlightening, and some of the ideas proposed by the report are not without their merits. However, it is still difficult to see how road tolling benefits the road-going majority. The fear that business users and the wealthy would simply absorb the extra charge for better transportation while the rest of us languish in a perpetual slow lane is not likely to be shaken off any time soon.

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