Britain’s transport policy “Railways good, roads bad” is not sustainable, and proves once again that transport is too important to be left to the vicissitudes of politics. The time has come to commercialise road systems, with users paying for what they get, and getting what they are prepared to pay for, subject to planning and other regulations.
How might this be done? GPS units in vehicles can now facilitate the operation of low-cost systems to identify road use charges on all sections of a road network; bill road users appropriately; collect payments at the designated rates; and credit the providers of the roads on which the travel takes place; all without identifying the travellers, or details of their trips. Only the totals of miles travelled at the different rates need to be sent to the billing agencies.
Although a strong believer in the merits of congestion pricing, I am now inclined to support it only where the roads are privately owned, or commercially managed or, at least, if surplus revenues are dedicated to road improvement, as in Stockholm. Otherwise, governments would have a vested interest in excessive congestion. Giving them the power to collect revenues from congestion pricing is like putting alcoholics in charge of pubs and liquor stores. So, the case for congestion pricing strengthens the case for road privatisation.
Might Central London be a suitable place for an experimental commercialised road system? Might a commercial “London Highway Authority” be politically acceptable? The pricing bullet has already been bitten, so the principal change would be to invest surplus revenues in road improvement. “Surplus” revenues are what remain after paying all road costs, including rent for land used for roads.
London ’s congestion pricing methods need to be improved, to reduce collection costs and make the charges relate more closely to congestion costs. Under a commercialised road system, road users would be “buying” road improvement; the local authorities would receive rents and property taxes (out of which they could continue to subsidise public transport); and the Treasury would get corporation and income taxes. Roads would be turned from financial liabilities into financial assets.
A way would also have to be found to ensure that road users taking part in a pilot project get appropriate relief from paying existing road use charges. Maybe a cash grant to those concerned could do this.
Mayor Boris – how about it?