For whom the road tolls?
Hidden away in the budget report is a suggestion that the Government might look at “a feasibility study into new ownership and financing models for the national road network, learning lessons from the water industry, to report on progress by Autumn Statement 2012”. It is hard to see what the water industry can teach the government about building roads (or dare I say stopping leaks, for that matter), but I hope that this will not mean that the 17th century model of toll roads will be rearing its feeble head again.
There is a long history of the exchequer paying for roads. By the fourteenth century royal grants were already paying for a few roads between towns to be paved. By 1654 revenue from the rates was being used for the first time to build and improve public roads. The private sector came on the scene soon afterwards, when the first turnpike road was constructed in 1663. Toll roads had a good run, but by 1870 the turnpike sector was completely annihilated by competition from the railways. Since then, the vast majority of roads have been constructed and maintained by public sector.
In the last 100 years the construction of bridges sometimes been accompanied by tolls. However, unsurprisingly there is evidence that drivers don’t like tolls. In some cases, tolls have the effect of diverting traffic away from the locality as well as bearing down on poorer drivers who have no other way of getting to their homes, which is why the Scottish Government abolished all bridge tolls in 2008. This is also the reason why the town of Porthmadog abolished the toll across the Cob embankment leading across the estuary into the town.
People are willing to pay to cross the Severn because there is no easy alternative, but they will tend to avoid tolls when they can. This is why the M6 toll road has never quite met expectations (despite a slightly Panglossian evaluation from the Highways Agency which show the road ticking all the boxes – except the missing box of carrying high volumes of traffic).
In August 2005 a Highways Agency study showed that usage had settled at around 50,000 vehicles per day (about two-thirds of the predicted 74,000) but that traffic volumes on the M6 had reduced slightly. Later unconfirmed reports suggest that the onset of the recession might have driven usage of this road down nearer to half of the predicted traffic volumes. (Please comment if you can verify or deny these reports).
It follows that if the Government really wants to revive this transport policy from the time of Charles II they will be pushed to find anybody to finance toll roads without massive Treasury sweeteners, as experience suggests that the required revenue will not roll in readily.