Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Road Tolls Need Revision To Support Freight Movement

Bridge and Tunnel Fees - Vital Income versus Tax on Haulage
Shipping News Feature

UK – Much debate currently on the subject of road tolls, an ever increasingly controversial subject. Most British trucking firms have to use ‘pay as you go’ facilities ranging from the simple bridge toll to the eco sensitive congestion zones in cities like London. The past few years have seen a steady rise in everyday costs for the general haulier and the geography involved results in higher costs for some against that of their competitors.

This week the Freight Transport Association (FTA) was pleased to receive a letter from Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Economy and Transport Ieuan Wyn Jones, confirming that a study into the economic impact of tolls on the Severn Crossings will be taken forward. The FTA stressed the problems associated with rising tolls to the Minister in May during a meeting where truck representatives highlighted the need for businesses that use the Severn Crossing to be protected from unfair and unnecessary toll price hikes.

Ian Gallagher, FTA's Policy Manager for Wales commented:

"We are pleased that the Welsh Assembly Government has listened to industry and commissioned an independent study into the economic ramifications of constant annual price hikes along this crucial trade corridor. These tolls cost some of our members many tens of thousands of pounds every year, money which could be invested in staff training or greener fleets. Government has seen sense and frozen tolls elsewhere in the UK, it is only fair that the same principles be applied to the Severn.”

Mr Gallagher was referring to points made in our article last October when the then Labour Government were accused of hypocrisy by the FTA. The row flared up again in January when 50% increases to cross the Tamar Bridge were proposed. These were supported by the Government and came into effect in March after many objections.

Mr Gallagher concluded:

"With goods vehicles paying more to use the Severn crossings than they do for tolls in other parts of the country, companies are effectively being penalised for doing business in Wales. This simply has to stop or else we risk the recovery of the Welsh economy as a whole. We hope that this study will provide government with the robust evidence it needs to take prompt action, as the longer it takes the greater the damage to businesses."

Meanwhile Transport Minister Mike Penning who visited the Dartford Tunnel Crossing and Queen Elizabeth II Bridge which span the Thames at Thurrock, has indicated that revision of toll collections need to be studied. The crossing is a notorious bottleneck interrupting as it does the flow of all traffic on the M25 in both directions whilst drivers negotiate pay booths. Local residents have been assured endlessly down the years that tolls would be lifted when the works had been paid for but even before the motorway’s construction the scheme grew from one tunnel to two, each of four lanes, then the bridge was built for traffic to flow Southbound. Tolls have inevitably risen inexorably over the years and nobody in the area now believes they will be rescinded.

During a Commons debate Mr Penning pointed out that using new technology, number plate recognition springs to mind, a system might be found which meant the removal of the normal barriers whilst still enabling revenue collection. With income from the crossing running at an estimated £40 million per annum, the crossing remains as a tasty hanging fruit should the Government decide to sell it off as has been mooted.

Labour decreed the crossing would be sold to help Government debt levels but at the time David Cameron objected and Conservative politicians based around the location on both sides of the river declared themselves against privatisation. Many in fact, including Jackie Doyle-Price, MP for Thurrock, have campaigned long and hard to have the tolls removed. Such a policy may be less popular in Government circles in the light of economic reality, the Government must balance the benefits of a perpetual ‘cash cow’ against likely maintenance and running costs in the years to come.

A private consortium having a stranglehold on the cost of travelling around Britain’s busiest motorway with no other realistic alternative route available (unlike for example the M6), is not an appealing scenario.