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Toll roads

March 20, 2012

Their time has come


Toll roads                                          “Free” roads                                  Private roads

David Cameron’s tentative suggestion yesterday to encourage new roads, or the upgrading of old ones, in return for letting the builders levy tolls, has provoked the usual howls of outrage. Why? It has something for everyone.

Businessmen make money, taxpayers get a break, drivers get better roads, and pricing discourages wasteful trips and time spent in traffic jams – Nick Clegg’s green friends should rejoice most of all. Automated electronic charging makes even tollbooth queues a thing of the past.

The idea is a no brainer for trunk roads, but it should be extended to all roads. Let local communities, even the residents of single streets, own their roads and charge to drive or park on them. Most would spend less on maintenance than remote councils do, which would save energy, slow local traffic and help the environment. Traffic would keep moving because a few people would find it worthwhile to tart up a through road, or build a bypass, and charge for it.  Click here for more.

Most objections come from socialists who think the state should run everything, and from drivers who fear paying more. Fortunately the former are an endangered species and the latter are mistaken. There is no need for the overall costs of travel to rise. High fuel tax is a crude way to pay for the pollution drivers impose on others. Road pricing, varied by time and route is more efficient, and the increased visibility of tolls, while making them unpopular, paradoxically makes people more aware of them and brings pressure for reduction. Supporters of low tax should encourage visible taxes.

The main objection has been transaction costs. Until recently it would have been prohibitively expensive to collect the tolls on all but the largest roads. But technology and the internet have changed all that.  The time for letting government give us the roads they think we want has passed. This is one policy Cameron and Clegg can genuinely both support. Keep on guys.

Jim Thornton

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