Thursday, 5 December 2013

UK A14 highway project to proceed toll free, due to public opposition

So it is not to be.  It appears that the proposed A14 toll road is going to be built - but not as a toll road.

In the Autumn Statement of the British Government it is to be announced that the major upgrade of the A14 will proceed, but as a conventional highway project funded by Treasury, according to the BBC.

I've written extensively before about the project:

A lonely toll road that wouldn't come remotely close to paying for itself

So this is a story of some wishful thinking, which I'll admit, I agreed with at the time.  It was right to investigate whether tolling could usefully help pay for a project.

A very large highway project, involving mostly new capacity, was ready to go.  Then came the General Election in 2010, and a change of government.  It faced a fiscal crisis and had to rein in some major spending commitments by the previous government to address the budget deficit, and freezing development of this highway project was one way to do that.

The road itself is considered critical because it is frequently congested and carries high volumes of truck traffic linking the West and East Midlands (including the city of Birmingham) to the ports in Suffolk and Essex at Felixstowe and Harwich.  About a quarter of the traffic involves HGVs, which makes it a critical freight corridor.  It suffers from peak congestion as commuters travel between various towns, with Cambridge as a key attractor.  Whilst some efforts have been made to promote rail freight (successfully) and public transport, it is not considered likely that mode shift can alleviate the remaining regular congestion, and the route is considered to be a bottleneck on the development of the Midlands, given it provide the primary port access for the region's towns and cities.

The A14 upgrade project in detail
The map above is a detailed description.  The upper part depicts the Huntingdon Southern Bypass (which looked like it could be tolled) , the lower part the doubling of capacity on the A14 northwest of Cambridge from 2 to 4 lanes each way, and then the widening of the Cambridge northern bypass (with a series of junction and link improvements.

So it was thought that maybe tolling could provide a way to help pay for it.  The economic case for the project was considered good (it had a benefit/cost ratio over 2).  So investigations were made of how to toll it.  It saw a couple of version of a toll road emerge.  One saw the additional lanes for part of the existing highway to be built parallel to it, but separate - effectively creating a 2 lane each way local highway untolled either side of a similar capacity expressway.  That idea was scrapped.

Huntingdon Bypass in red and in yellow would have been the parallel expressway

The last iteration was to simply toll the Huntingdon southern bypass, on the basis that traffic would either pay for the bypass or take a much slower route through town.  

Huntingdon Southern Bypass would have been tolled

The problem is that tolling had one negative effect, and not enough of a positive effect.

The negative effect was to make the project's economics weak, as far fewer vehicles would use the new road.  Some would divert, those paying the toll saw less net benefits as a result.

A14 toll road diversion routes

Furthermore, the net revenue that would be collected was going to be low, being 20% or less of the construction cost.  Given there is little political support for tolling, and it wasn't going to contribute much towards the £1.5 billion capital cost (and options for tolling involved altering roads to discourage diversion, at an additional cost not only in infrastructure,  but in inconveniencing others), it is understandable that tolling was scrapped.

The latest plan would have required demolition of an existing highway viaduct, which would have meant the diversion route would have forced traffic through the centre of Huntingdon. 

Given the improving UK economy, and despite the still large budget deficit, it appears that tolling this one road is more trouble than what it was worth.   

Lessons to learn?

Tolling is hard in the UK.  It is hard because other taxes on road use are so high, and unless a brand new route is being built that is substantially better than the existing one, it is difficult to attract road users to pay to use it.  

Unless tolling is geographically more widespread, it is easy to argue that tolling one new project and not another is discriminatory.  Why should users of this highway pay more for a project that has good economic benefits, with users of others wont?

Indeed, unless the toll pays for at least half of the construction costs, and there is no reduction in existing capacity, it is difficult to argue for a toll publicly.  It just looks like penny pinching.

he problem is that although the Treasury and some officials (and politicians) want to continue to argue that taxation on owning a road vehicle and on consuming the fuel that they use should not be considered anything to do with paying for road use, it is willful blindness.

There are no similar taxes on owning vehicles for other modes, and the tax on fuels primarily used by road transport is lower or non-existent on the same fuels used for other purposes.  Yes the railways pay those taxes, but they receive substantial subsidies.   

So it is difficult to uncouple the argument that fuel taxes not only represent a contribution from road users to paying for roads, but are well above the value of that.  Yet few politicians are willing to take this argument on.   Although it remains notable that fuel tax in the UK has not only not been inflation adjusted since this Government was formed, but was dropped by 1p/l.   Raising fuel tax is politically toxic too.

Could there be new toll roads?  Maybe.  However, I'd leave it up to the Highways Agency, in its forthcoming commercial company structure, to pursue this.  If it can find projects that will fund themselves with tolls, or can do so substantially with Treasury funding to top up, then let them proceed.  The same with local authorities.

However, I suspect the future is with something on a network basis - because the UK actually needs a fundamental review as to how roads are charged and funded.  

The A14 was worth investigating for tolling, but given the scale of the project, the somewhat revived public finances and the negative political consequences of implementation, it has proven to be a dud of a toll project.

Given that, it would appear the most likely future toll roads in the UK are crossings over the Thames.

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