YouTube / HighwaysAgency
Toll charges are never popular, but the Dartford Crossing, which connects the two eastern ends of the M25, has become the centre of additional controversy as the Highways Agency is enacting plans to do away with toll booths completely, forcing drivers – both British and foreign – to pay remotely from October onwards.
Supporters claim that this radical change will improve traffic flow on the bridge and tunnel, which cross the Thames to the east of London. However, opponents worry that the new setup will leave many drivers perplexed as to how they can pay the toll and even whether they need to pay – as the bridge is free to use at certain times.
Toll booths to be removed completely
From October it will no longer be possible for drivers to pay in person at all. Instead motorists will have to use a pre-pay Dart Charge account or pay online, by phone, by text, at a number of retail outlets or even by post. Dart Charge users will receive a discount of a third, though this barely covers the accompanying 25 per cent hike in prices that is to be introduced. From October the standard charge will stand at £2.50 for a car (up from £2.00) though it will remain free to cross between 10pm and 6am.
He added that new signs will show how to pay. "Drivers won't need to note down any complicated information while driving. The signs will simply say 'Find us online at Dart Charge'."
The response to remote payment from motoring groups has been varied though. Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), said: "We work quite closely with the Highways Agency and they have been giving us a lot of information about how it should work.
"There's a big, big PR plan in place to try and communicate to people what's going to happen. The Highways Agency is trying very hard to get the message across and to ensure that people know what's happening."
Mr Greig continued: "For us, getting rid of the toll booths is the real key benefit. At the moment most of the feedback that we're getting from members is that they can't wait to get rid of the toll booths."
Drivers could face large fines for forgetting to pay
However, the remote payment setup also creates the possibility than many drivers may forget on a longer journey or not know how to pay and potentially face a £35 penalty charge, which jumps to £70 after 14 days and £105 after 28 days. Motorists will need to pay in advance or by midnight the following day to avoid a fine.
AA spokesman Luke Bosdet, however, thinks that more could be done to explain the new changes to drivers. He told us: "Somebody who is a law-abiding, tax-paying road user is basically being set some kind of driving puzzle that they've got to figure out, where they may or may not be hit with a fine."
Rapidly increasing charges are another concern, with a 33 per cent increase in price seen in 2012 and a further 25 per cent rise due as the toll booths are removed – all on a bridge which was intended to be free to use once construction charges had been paid for by tolls; something which happened way back in 2003.
Work to remove the toll booths and introduce a new road layout will start soon, with completion scheduled for spring 2015. Construction costs are predicted to reach up to £62 million according to the Highways Agency, which accounts for around a quarter of the total construction cost of the bridge when adjusted for inflation. However using current traffic figures, this could be paid for in just 155 days if each vehicle were to pay the full £2.50 charge.
Current DART-Tag holders to be contacted with more information
Those who already hold DART-Tag toll passes will be contacted from now until October with details of how to set up a new 'Dart Charge' account and will be able to transfer any current credit. Currently around 160,000 vehicles use the crossings every day, frequently causing significant congestion, some of which may be eased with the removal of toll booths, but may require further increases in capacity to avoid similar future traffic problems. The AA has said: "This is one of the most important motorways in Europe and it needs more capacity, not easier ways to pay."
Watch the video below to see the changes made so far to the Dartford Crossing road network: