Wednesday, September 1, 2010

M6 Toll Road

An interesting report from the Campaign for Better Transport on the M6 Toll Road. In case you didn't know, this road was built as a commercial venture to relieve congestion on the M6 around the Birmingham area. The gist of the report is that the M6 Toll Road has failed significantly to reduce congestion or improve journey times. In addition, the company running the road has lost large amounts of money despite increasing toll rates above inflation every year.
This research was reported by the BBC, in their usual low-value-added fashion, with no balancing opinion from other sides, which is a shame because I would have liked to hear the Government view on this.
From my personal experience, the report does not paint a familiar picture. I use the M6 to drive up to the Lake District a couple of times a year (one of the few trips I do by car). Before the 'Toll' was built, the section through Birmingham was always horribly congested. Since it was built, I have to say it has improved things enormously for me. I don't use the Toll Road, but clearly I get the benefit of congestion being reduced by people that do. And therein lies the paradox. The toll road, and any like it, will only succeed as a commercial venture if congestion gets worse, yet the point of the toll road is to reduce congestion. In addition, the toll road can only reduce congestion on the bypassed section of road: congestion on the approaches to it will actually be made worse by the presence of the toll road: the bottleneck simply moves (which is exactly what has happened anywhere new road capacity has been built). So it is difficult not to conclude that building toll roads to bypass non-toll roads is an untenable strategy. Given the current climate of austerity in the DoT, privately-funded toll roads are the only way any significant new road capacity will get built, and given the commercial failure of the M6 Toll, I can't see many corporations queuing up to get involved.

Which only reinforces what I've said before: road charging is unavoidable, unless there is no new spending on road-building. However, road charging is politically dangerous, which is why none of the major parties will go near it (the Lib Dems said they would look at it but wouldn't introduce it in this Parliament). So maybe we're stuck with no new road building. Which is no bad thing.

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