It was intended to be a pioneer in continental-style road pricing, enforced by natty grey toll booths in the Warwickshire countryside. But under proposals published yesterday, Britain’s first pay-per-drive motorway, the Birmingham northern relief road, may deter the very people it was supposed to attract: lorry drivers who will have to pay £11 a trip.
Due to open in January, the 27-mile motorway is the biggest road-building project in the country. It includes 50 new bridges, three maintenance areas, a service station and a new canal lock. It is intended to take pressure off the M6, which carries up to 180,000 vehicles a day through the suburbs of Britain’s second city.
Motorists learned yesterday that under a unique private-sector pricing scheme, they will pay £3 a car to use the road.
The AA said the scheme would be a crucial test. Paul Watters, head of roads and transport policy, said: “It is Britain’s first experience in having to pay for an alternative route. There’s a reluctant acceptance that to get out of the nightmare of Birmingham, people are going to have to part with this amount.
“But if many people are prepared to pay, the government may start flashing its cash register eyes and asking, where else?”
However, to the dismay of freight organisations and green campaigners, the road’s private-sector operator, Midland Expressway, revealed it was imposing a huge premium on heavy vehicles, with an £11 charge for every lorry.
Critics accused Midland Expressway of a “smoke screen” policy which would keep heavy goods thundering through Birmingham, to avoid the cost of the wear and tear caused by lorries on the road surface.
James Hookham, policy director of the Freight Transport Association, said: “We were expecting something more like a fiver. At £5 it would have been a no-brainer: every truck operator would have directed their vehicles that way.”
Among the reasons for building the road was to divert heavily polluting trucks out of Birmingham. According to the Highways Agency, a third of road freight passes along the M6 at some point in its journey.
However, Mr Hookham said that at £11, the new motorway would be a “distress purchase” rather than the route of choice for freight, used only when the M6 was particularly busy.
He said it would add 4% to the average cost of a truck going from London to Manchester: “A lot of truck operators will just tell their fleet to carry on using the existing road.”
Friends of the Earth’s West Midlands campaigner, Chris Crean, said the pricing policy was down to a controversial deal drawn up during the 1980s by the Conservative transport secretary, Cecil Parkinson, who agreed that a single company would build, maintain and collect tolls on the road for 53 years.
Mr Crean said it was not in the consortium’s financial interest to attract heavy goods: “Because of its weight, a lorry damages the road infrastructure as much as 100 times more than a car. They’re going to want to attract cars, which give them revenue, but not lorries, which cause damage.
“They are using a new road to generate new money from new traffic through their toll booths. That’s against government policy and against our national interests. Any extra traffic it generates will have to access the motorway through the rest of the national road network.”
Midland Expressway has spent £485m on the motorway, which will be known as the M6 Toll. Engineers have moved 16m cubic metres of earth.
The road passes The Belfry, venue of last year’s Ryder Cup, and skirts Sutton Coldfield, north-east of Birmingham. More than 2,500 people have worked on the project, which uses 800,000 tonnes of blacktop surfacing. The road has survived two public inquiries and a court challenge by local campaigners.
According to the independent monitoring service Trafficmaster, the M6 Toll could save motorists up to 45 minutes by avoiding Birmingham at peak hours. Estimates published during a 1994 inquiry suggested that up to 100,000 motorists could use the new road a day, yielding revenue of more than £3m a week.
Under the terms of Midland Expressway’s contract, which was approved by the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, the government has no say in the level of tolls or in the use of the proceeds.
The company, which is backed by Australia’s Macquarie Infrastructure and Italian road operator Autostrade, is preparing a multi-million pound advertising campaign to urge motorists to use the road, despite the government’s official policy of encouraging people to switch to public transport.
Steve Hounsham, of pressure group Transport 2000, said: “As a new road, it will fill up with new traffic faster than a ditch across a bog fills up with water.”
Midland Expressway’s managing director, Tom Fanning, said the first 10 million motorists would get a £1 discount to encourage swift build-up of traffic.
He said: “We’re providing a specific solution to a specific problem. I’m not here to solve transportation infrastructure problems for the whole of the UK.”
Tolls will be lower at night, with charges of £1 a car and £9 a truck between 11pm and 6am. Motorists who drive through the automatic toll booths without paying will be photographed, traced and given 48 hours to find the cash.
The transport secretary, Alistair Darling, has said he will watch the road’s progress to help finalise the government’s policy towards road charging. The transport department is already planning to levy a “per mile” fee on lorry drivers, regulated by a satellite-linked receiver in cabs.
Critics say road charging can only work if the proceeds are pumped into public transport, as in the case of mayor Ken Livingstone’s £5-a-day congestion charge in London. Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said: “Charging tolls on the Birmingham northern relief road merely helps the government get a new road on the cheap and, in due course, puts profits into the hands of the builders. There is no benefit to public transport.”
Source: the Guardian