Private enterprise will steer us to better roads

In an article for the Yorkshire Post, Richard Wellings argues that the provision of transport infrastructure needs to be more closely linked to consumer demand

IN the build-up to the election that never was, the Government agreed to fund London's Crossrail scheme. Meanwhile, the price of petrol and diesel, inflated by recent tax increases, is now hovering around the £1 a litre mark.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that many drivers are very angry that the large sums they spend on fuel appear to be totally detached from the transport services provided for them.

This year, Yorkshire's motorists will pay the Treasury about £3bn in fuel duty and road tax. Yet the amount spent on the county's roads will be only £500m. And, as revealed by the Yorkshire Post's Road to Ruin campaign, only a small fraction of New Labour's public transport subsidies will find their way to the county.

Investment is heavily concentrated in London and the South-East, on large schemes such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which has cost an enormous £5bn – enough to build two M62s. The 2012 Olympics, set to burden taxpayers with at least another £10bn, will drain further funds into the capital. The cost of the Crossrail scheme has been estimated at £16bn – enough to build 1,000 miles of motorway and eliminate congestion on Britain's trunk routes. Cost overruns could easily take the cost much higher, to perhaps £20bn or £30bn.

Gaps in Yorkshire's transport infrastructure leave the county's economy at a competitive disadvantage. In many places the road network is more like that of a developing Eastern European nation than an integral part of the world's fifth largest economy.

Sheffield and Manchester are perhaps the two largest cities in western Europe with no direct motorway connection. Travellers must choose between the dangerous and tortuous Snake and Woodhead Passes or divert 30 miles north to use the M62.

Then there are the poor links to the south. The M1 is indirect, unreliable and overcrowded, while most of the A1 has yet to be upgraded to motorway standard. With just two lanes in either direction, motorists are stuck behind overtaking lorries for much of their journey.

Problems aren't confined to the motorway and trunk road network. The maintenance of local authority roads is often appalling, particularly in South Yorkshire. In many areas it is necessary to swerve to avoid potholes, even on main roads. This is excusable in poverty-stricken Africa, but not in 21st century Britain.

Then there is congestion. It has now spread out from the larger cities to small towns and sections of rural motorway. The Government has failed to respond adequately to consumer demand and the resulting delays are becoming increasingly costly.

It's no wonder that motorists feel ripped off. They pay large amounts in tax but get a poor standard of service in return.

Measures to increase the use of hard shoulders during busy times, as announced by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly yesterday, are only short-term solutions to the crisis affecting our roads.

What is needed is to make roads more like commercial businesses. Drivers would pay tolls and the revenues would be used directly for maintenance and improvements. In the 18th century this system built a 20,000-mile turnpike network, which became the backbone of the industrial revolution long before the railways arrived.

Motorists would only pay for the journeys they actually made and the Government would no longer use fuel duty and road tax as convenient ways to fund its vast, counterproductive welfare programmes.

Road pricing has the potential to provide motorists with better infrastructure, while reducing congestion and improving travel times. And a complex national scheme would not be necessary to achieve these gains. A charge of just 2p per mile on motorways and trunk roads could fund a trebling of investment in the core network, providing 100 miles of new motorway every year.

But there are dangers. If toll revenues are controlled by government bureaucrats they are unlikely to be spent wisely. Money is likely to be lavished on expensive public transport schemes with questionable economic benefits. Vague social objectives such as "regeneration" will be given more importance than responding to consumer demand.

The private sector must therefore be given a leading role in the development and management of tolled roads. This will help ensure that investment and pricing decisions are made on a commercial basis rather than at the discretion of politicians and planners – who often come under undue pressure from special interest groups.

Only private enterprise can make the road system responsive to the needs of travellers and provide value-for-money for Yorkshire's long-suffering motorists.

Dr Richard Wellings is Deputy Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

For more on transport issues see:

The Railways, the Market and the Government by John Hibbs, Oliver Knipping, Rico Merket, Chris Nash, Rana Roy, David E. Tyrrall and Richard Wellings.

Pricing Our Roads: Vision and Reality by Stephen Glaister and Daniel Graham.

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