Thursday, 4 April 2013

Tolling the roads

The alacrity with which both the UK Government and the Welsh Government have denied any plans to charge tolls on any new motorway around Newport leaves an unanswered question about who leaked the suggestion that they were, and why.  Flying a kite, perhaps, to see what the reaction would be?  But whose kite? 

The incident also exposes more than a little hypocrisy amongst Welsh politicians.

A number of those now decrying the idea of tolling any new motorway have previously said that they favour retaining tolls on the two Severn bridges, and setting those tolls at a level which is higher than the maintenance costs in order to generate an income stream which can be used for other capital projects.  It’s a tax by any other name.  I struggle to understand why a toll to get round one obstacle (the Severn estuary) is such a good idea that it should be turned into a tax, whilst a toll to get round another obstacle (Newport) would be unworkable and an economic disaster.  At the very least, they're being inconsistent.  One is left wondering if the only great 'principle' behind their position here is 'What can we get away with?'.

Tolls for using roads are certainly an unpopular idea, but I'm not convinced that they’re always and necessarily a bad idea.  It depends on the economic hinterland and what we’re trying to achieve.

In an economy which is highly centralised and which depends on long supply chains and frequent long distance movement of goods and people, and in which some areas are central whilst others are peripheral, road tolls will never look sensible when viewed from the perspective of the periphery.  It’s just another cost which stands in the way of economic development in Wales.  And since that is the only economic model of which most of our politicians can conceive, any tolls look like a bad plan for Wales.

On the other hand, if we had a more localised economy, or at least a plan to move towards one, tolls which disincentivised long centralised supply chains could actually help to drive things further in the right direction, by making it cheaper and easier to stay local.  Tolls can also encourage people to use other modes of transport (and indeed, it's surely at least possible, if part of the problem at Brynglas is the high percentage of vehicles using the M4 for short local trips, that a toll on the relevant part of the existing M4 might actually do quite a lot to relieve the pressure without building a very expensive new road).

So for me, the problem with the proposal for tolls (or non-proposal as it turns out) isn't with the tolls themselves, it's with the economic model under which we live, and the utter unwillingness of the politicians to envision or pursue an alternative.  Change that, and my response might be very different.

But from either perspective, I still don't understand why charging a higher than necessary toll to cross a bridge is such a good idea when charging a toll elsewhere is such a bad one – that doesn't make sense under either economic model.  It’s amazing that so many politicians seem to be getting away with holding such a contradictory and inconsistent position.


Glyndo said...

"if part of the problem at Brynglas is the high percentage of vehicles using the M4 for short local trips, that a toll on the relevant part of the existing M4 might actually do quite a lot to relieve the pressure without building a very expensive new road".

Presumably people aren't taking these "short trips" for their pleasure, they are going somewhere for a reason. If you force them off the M4 with a toll, then which other route will they use? This suggestion seems to me to be simply a means of moving the congestion from the M4 to somewhere else. Good for strategic transport but a bit tough on the local area.

John Dixon said...

If you assume that all journeys made by car would continue to be made by car, then your logic is close to impeccable. But don't forget that the alternative to spending all that money on a second M4 around Newport also includes the possibility of spending a much smaller sum on enhancing public transport which creates other options.

But I wasn't actually advocating the introduction of selected tolls around Newport; that comment was something of an aside to the main point.

G Horton-Jones said...

The problem with the Severn bridges is simply one of long term economics
The first crossing is perhaps at a stage where its maintenance costs are starting to outstrip its revenue generation ie tolls. As with nuclear power station decommissioning the end life of major structures are always forgotten often conveniently so Without too much diversion --what is the cost of replacing the Severn tunnel certainly not the cost of bricking up either end

There is no doubt that the M4 in the greater Newport area is widely used by purely local traffic often with immense impact on through traffic in both directions

As far as tolls are concerned the original toll roads failed because the revenue was always syphoned of to finance other spending activity and not in modern parlance ring fenced for road maintenance. And yes those on the periphery both geographically and financially paid the most