Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Cambridge discusses congestion charging... again

Before the financial crisis and recession in the UK, several cities across the UK (outside London) were investigating congestion pricing to raise funds and manage congestion. It was partly because the government of the day was linking new funding for local transport with requirements for local authorities to introduce forms of travel demand management, specifically congestion charging or parking levies.

However, a series of events saw that interest fold. Manchester foolishly held a referendum on its proposals, and voters overwhelmingly rejected congestion charging. Other local authorities lost interest, and as the previous government sought to win the 2010 election, more funding was made available for a range of transport projects without conditions previously discussed. So politics and economics effectively saw discussions of new congestion charging schemes effectively disappear.

Even Cambridge considered a city wide area charge, but it was rejected by the council over a year ago.

However, all local authorities in the UK are legally empowered to introduce congestion charging schemes on their own roads (not national highways controlled by central government or the devolved national executives). With central government budget cuts to local authorities as the newly elected government attempts to abolish the UK’s structural budget deficit in five years, some in local government are seeking ways to make up the difference.

So give Councillor Nichola Harrison (independent, former Liberal Democrat) some marks for bravery in openly suggesting that Cambridge introduce congestion charging, less than two years after it had last been rejected.

Her proposal is for distance based charging, varying by time, place and emissions rating, and for it to generate £120 million (US$191 million) of net revenue for the council. Charging would include off peak periods, and would likely involve options of motorists choosing either GPS based distance charging or prepaying an access charge validated through automatic number plate recognition.

She even set up her own website about her ideas, suggesting a £20 a week cap.

“Councillor Harrison proposes that £50 million could be spent on bus subsidies to create new routes and more frequent services.

Another £15 million is earmarked for highways maintenance and £30 million would be used for infrastructure projects.”

However there are many opponents. Some believe the roads are “already paid for” as if they are assets that never need renewal. However, a more valid criticism is from those who note that road taxation in the UK (fuel and annual ownership duty) generate many times the money that central government puts into roads. Motorists already feel overtaxed, and like any consumers who believe they already pay too much and don’t get value for money, they will resist paying more.

My view is that it is good to have this debate, it is good to advocate fully funding roads directly from charges from users that vary by time, place and vehicle type. The argument that central government will do nothing in the next few years of budget cuts is a strong one. However, the question is whether motorists are willing to pay more, and if so, on what basis. I doubt that most motorists, already paying 5x what is spent on roads, are willing to pay substantially more. As a result, I doubt that a majority of local body politicians will embrace this in the UK context.

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