As the number of toll roads across the UK increases, their occurrence is quickly becoming one of the major concerns for motorists. This comes in the wake of a survey carried out by the Alliance of British Drivers (ABD) and reflects the number of new projects being considered by the government. While the usual worries for drivers may typically include their insurance policy, the relative pros and cons of new and used cars, and, frequently, speeding limits and fines, the apprehension about toll roads and the impact of road pricing on motorists’ journeys was found in the ABD survey to be greater than that of issues such as poor road condition and even fuel prices.
This revelation may come as no surprise to motorists in the south east of England, especially those that use the Dartford crossing on a regular basis. The crossing has been undergoing renovations for almost a year and the new charging scheme, which became operational in November 2014, saw a 25 per cent increase to £2.50 per crossing for car drivers. The Dartford crossing, like many toll roads, has a controversial history. Following the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge in 1991, the toll booths had always been scheduled for removal in 2003, but due to a loophole under which the “toll” became a “charge” motorists continued to be charged after this date.
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So despite general and widespread opposition from the public towards toll roads, drivers may be right to be concerned. A new Infrastructure Bill is currently being debated in parliament, and according to the ABD it is one that could signal the introduction of several more toll roads throughout the country. Part of the bill includes a proposal to rebrand the Highways Agency as a government-owned company called Highways England, and to introduce challenging financial targets. Toll roads could be seen as primary means to achieve these targets, and Highways England would have the authority to install them with the Secretary of State’s consent.
The government has already committed to investing £15 bn in the UK’s road network. This will fund the completion of 84 new projects, such improvements to the M42 near Birmingham and junctions on the M25. While this sounds impressive, the ABD has highlighted that in reality this investment is a poor reward for motorists, considering it amounts to less than a third of annual motoring tax receipts.
The ABD has requested that the government place safeguards against privatisation and toll roads into the new Infrastructure Bill. Unless this happens, the outsourcing of large sections of road to tolling companies is very much a potential threat in the eyes of worried motorists, despite government insistence to the contrary.