Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Tolling for a purpose

The willingness of the Welsh Government to consider the proposal made yesterday by Gerry Holtham that the new M4 link should become a toll road was disappointing.  It’s not that I’m opposed in principal to road tolls.  They’ll always be unpopular, of course, but as a means of seeking to deter private transport, encourage the use of public transport and re-localise important aspects of the economy, I can see a potential role for a properly thought-through system of road tolls.  My problem is that that isn’t what was being proposed here.
Professor Holtham asked “Why should the taxpayer finance the construction when road-users, who benefit, can do so?”.  I have two objections to that line of argument.  The first is related to the idea that shared infrastructure costs should be paid for only by those who use them.  What if we apply the same argument to a new hospital for instance?  Why should the taxpayer finance the construction, when the sick people who benefit could do so?  And the second point is that it isn’t only the users of a road who benefit from it, as we can see if we turn the question around and ask who really pays the tolls for the businesses using any new road.  The answer is, ultimately, the customers, of course.  Although charges and taxes appear to be levied on businesses, the costs of those businesses always and inevitably get passed on to the customer.  And insofar as there is any selectivity as to which customers pay, it’s the ones at the ‘far end’ of the tolled road.
And that brings me to my main objection to selective road tolling rather than tolling as a part of a package of measures with clear social and environmental benefits in mind.  Just as the Severn Bridge tolls have been a disincentive for some businesses to establish themselves on the ‘wrong’ side, preferring to be on the side where they have the greatest number of customers, so tolling any road in isolation creates a disincentive for businesses to find themselves at the ‘wrong’ end of that road.  No sooner do we get rid of one set of disincentivising tolls than we are faced with the possibility of another.
There is a difference between the two cases, of course.  The alternative to using the Severn Bridge is a long diversion, whilst the alternative to using the proposed new M4 link is to continue using the old untolled road - or as Prof Holtham put it, those unwilling or unable to pay the tolls could “prefer to sit in a jam”.  It sounds like a nice empty free-flowing road for those with spare cash, and a second-class route for the rest.  In a roundabout way, the provision of a better, more exclusive, road only for those who can afford it is a justification, of sorts, for the idea that those using it should pay for it.  I’m not sure, though, that a road built for the use of a minority actually answers the supposed need for the construction in the first place.
Like many others, I’m not convinced about the need for the road at all, so if the Welsh Government is serious about being ready to consider the use of tolls on our roads, why not look at how a comprehensive package of policies, including tolling, might reduce the demand for capacity on the roads and obviate the need?  I accept that it wouldn’t be an easy sell, but it would at least be in line with the fine words which the government likes to utter about the environment and future generations, as opposed to building a road which makes those words worthless.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I used the M6 Toll many times, and compared it with driving i
on the real M6, which is awful. Driving on the Toll is really fast, and can save time. But hardly anyone uses it. Does it cut congestion? Does it pay for itself? The M6 Toll being the UK flagship, I don't suppose it'll be allowed to fail. But not a good precedent for for our M4