Thursday, 20 October 2011

A new toll road for Britain? UPDATED

One of the largest new road project proposals in the UK is a £1billion proposal to upgrade the A14 highway.  The project has the following components:
  • A new dual carriageway to the south of Huntingdon between Ellington and Fen Drayton with three lanes in each direction (except between Ellington and the A1, where only two lanes would be needed);
  • Widening of the existing A14 to at least three lanes in each direction between Fen Drayton and Fen Ditton;
  • Local access roads alongside the widened A14 to separate local and strategic traffic;
  • Major interchanges with the A1 at Brampton, the existing A14 at Fen Drayton and the M11/A428 at Girton.
The importance of the A14 may not be obvious, but it is essentially the key link between the busy port of Felixstowe (and the nearby port of Harwich) and the West Midlands, including Britain's second (equal) largest metropolis - Birmingham.  The West Midlands is the location of a lot of logistics, warehousing and distribution points for England, so this route is busy with a lot of trucks.

Public funding for the proposal was suspended by the British government in October 2010 because of pressures on the UK’s budget deficit that saw almost all areas of public spending subject to review in order to cut spending.  The project is currently suspended.
Where Britain's next toll road might be - A14 in the East Midlands

As a result, the then Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has been considering transferring the entire highway (127 miles) from Felixstowe to Leicestershire to private ownership according to the East Anglian Daily Times. The intention being that the upgrade work could be undertaken, but with toll funding.  A final report to government on alternatives to 100% public funding is expected in June 2012.

However, the idea has not been embraced by many local residents, nor by local politicians even though they are from the ruling Conservative Party.  Local MP Dr Therese Coffey (Conservative) has expressed concern, whilst another local MP, Daniel Poulter (Conservative), is concerned about people avoiding the toll using roads through towns, increasing congestion.

It is understandable, given that tolling would almost certainly have to include the existing road, and so would have to be priced to avoid such diversion. Given the dearth of major highway toll roads in the UK, the likelihood is that more motorists would avoid the toll than would be economically rational, as the perception of the cost of paying a toll when one is not used to it, is likely to be higher compared to a situation where tolls are common.   The only other toll roads in the UK are crossings, except for the M6 toll (which bypasses a section of untolled motorway that is periodically congested).   I suspect modelling of demand for the A14 upgrade as a tolled route will be sensitive to the maximum amount of revenue possible vs. the costs of diversion.

Certainly full points for the British government for being innovative, but given the UK has some of the highest fuel taxes in Europe (with the equivalent of less than 20% of that revenue spent on roads), it will be unsurprising if tolling an existing road in itself is unpopular.

UPDATE: More details released on the preferred concept for tolling the A14

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