The DfT is investigating a satellite-based scheme which charges motorists based on the time of day they drive and the roads they drive on.
This massive scheme is known more scientifically as "road user pricing", but is generally being referred to in the media as "pay-as-you-go" charging. The Department for Transport are investigating ways to implement it; Transport Secretary Alastair Darling has made a speech to the New Economics Foundation outlining the proposals.
It is much more fine-tuned than the London congestion charge scheme which simply charges users for driving within a marked zone.
A scheme on this scale has never been attempted anywhere else in the world, although the UK and Germany are in the process of rolling out national road pricing schemes for lorries (some 200,000 lorries in the UK as opposed to around 25 million total vehicles); the UK would be leading the way.
If the scheme were to go ahead, all motor vehicles would have to be fitted with a tracking device which constantly records the time and location of each vehicle. Satellite is the most likely tracking technology (most likely using the European Galileo position system currently under construction which will be more accurate than the American GPS system), although it may be supplemented by microwave-based beacons in some areas.
This information would be sent (probably via the mobile phone network) to central computers which would bill the motorist based on which roads they were driving on and at what time. This in itself has raised some privacy concerns; the car itself may have to work out the appropriate charge.
For example, a driver on the western section of the M25 at rush hour might be billed £1.34 per mile, whereas a driver on a rural road in the late evening would receive a small charge of just 2p per mile.
This charging scheme would probably replace or reduce the current road tax and fuel tax schemes, as voters are unlikely to support any large net increase in taxes. However, some environmental element will have to be introduced to make sure less-polluting cars are still incentivised over more-polluting ones - a charge discount is quite likely.
Rural motorists are likely to benefit the most from this scheme - with low charges on their uncongested roads, they would experience a decrease in the amount of tax they pay. This is considered fair as rural areas have poor public transport provision. However, the report into the scheme highlighted that rural traffic could rise considerably as a result of lower costs.
More controversially, urban drivers could face a much-increased bill. The current London congestion charge scheme would probably be replaced by the nationwide road user pricing scheme, and business users in central London could face a tax increase of some £140 per month, depending on their fleet usage. 40% of the nation's congestion is in Greater London, and this probably means that London motorists would shoulder most of the burden.
An apparently unstoppable rise in car use and ownership may force the introduction of this scheme, in order to stop the road network becoming unacceptably congested.
Studies by the Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT) have shown that road user pricing could cut congestion in the UK by an impressive 44%.
Remarkably, there is generally cross-party consensus on this scheme; the Liberal Democrats and Labour both had it in their manifestos, and the Conservatives are in favour of the principle, having considered it during their last administration, merely dropping the scheme because the technology was not ready.
Even the RAC support the principle behind the scheme, as they have estimated that to just to stop congestion increasing (not to reduce it) would require a five-fold increase in road-building or the same increase in fuel duty.
And although users of busy roads would pay more, they would receive a more reliable journey time.
The stumbling block is that this scheme would take at least 10 years to prepare and could be very expensive. In the meantime, the government may consider widening some motorways and introducing tolls on them to prevent the capacity increase being swallowed up by new traffic.
Alastair Darling has said that the Government would not need to install its own tracking equipment in cars as part of its plans to introduce satellite-based congestion charging across the country. Increasing numbers of cars already have tracking systems - either for navigation or for pay-as-you-go insurance, and motorists could pay their road charges using the providers of these existing services, reducing the privacy implications of the scheme.
According to The Times, a pilot scheme for road user charging involving lorries has been scrapped because it is too expensive - thus delaying a nationwide all-vehicle scheme to at least 2020.
Transport secretary Alastair Darling has outlined proposals for a nationwide road user charging scheme, where drivers would have satellite tracking devices installed in their cars, and would be charged between 2p and £1.34p per mile depending on the roads they drove on. The busiest roads would receive the highest charge; these include the western section of the M25 and parts of the M6 and M1. The charging scheme would replace road tax and most fuel tax.
The House of Commons Transport Committee has recommended that road pricing is taken forward as a means of controlling congestion on British roads, as long as it is part of a wider package of transport improvements and that the benefits outweigh the costs.
In advance of a possible satellite-based road user charging scheme, TfL has formally approached Alastair Darling's Department for Transport to suggest working together on a tag-based charging scheme which could be implemented in the next 4-7 years. The scheme would be used to charge vehicles to use busy routes in the capital and possibly around the country.
The RAC Foundation chairman said at a conference that the "intellectual case for road pricing is made", but the Government must persuade urban car drivers - who stand to pay much more under the proposed location & time-based scheme - that they will gain from the change through improved investment in transport.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, transport secretary Alastair Darling confirmed his view that nationwide "road user pricing" should be introduced in the next 10-15 years.
In the transport review, Alastair Darling backed the principle of a national road user charging scheme in principle but said that it was too large in scope to proceed with all at once; instead he gave his backing to starting with local schemes.
The Institute of Public Policy Research has released a report backing the GPS-based "road user pricing" scheme on which the Dept. for Transport is due to finish an investigation later this week.
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