Will Brave Politicians Please Stand Up? as the Debate on How to Tackle Congestion on Our Roads Hots Up, Transport Expert David Begg Calls for Action before It's Too Late Hurricane Katrina August 29,2005

Article excerpt

Byline: David Begg

There are always three questions that should be asked before assessing the viability of any new policy proposal: will the policy assist in achieving government objectives? Is it affordable? And is it politically/publicly acceptable?

When it comes to transport, too often professionals come forward with polices which meet the objectives test but come a cropper on the affordability or public acceptability test. The reaction is then to blame the mean old Treasury for having too tight a grip over the purse strings or for politicians for not being brave enough in leading from the front Ken Livingstone-style.

I plead guilty to making similar comments myself. However, it doesn't take us further forward and I'm much more interested in how we negotiate these hurdles. It is more often than not the public acceptability one which is the toughest to negotiate, especially in the last few years when transport has been the beneficiary of a more generous funding deal from the Treasury.

Road pricing is a good case study. It clearly passes the policy test. It's also potentially good news from an affordability perspective as it would be at best neutral on public finances and offers the prospect of boosting Treasury coffers. With road transport becoming more fuel efficient and the prospect of petrol and diesel cars being the exception rather than the norm, it has not been lost on the Treasury that tax revenues from fuel duty will diminish.

So having passed the first two tests with flying colours why are we not seeing road pricing rolled out across he country? The reason is the politics stink. Government in general and Douglas Alexander in particular deserve credit for showing leadership on this agenda but no amount of TIF carrots dangled in front of cities will result in real schemes on the ground when local politicians judge it will cost them votes.

The sad, but realistic, conclusion this leaves me with is that there will not be any new road pricing schemes for the foreseeable future. Should we not now be focussing on plan B and working out the detail of a voluntary scheme?

Within a decade most cars will have GPS technology on board. How can we encourage motorists to change the way they pay for road use? What can we learn from the voluntary uptake of water meters? What can we learn from Oregon in the United States where smart card technology allows motorists to offset the charge they pay for using the roads against their petrol bills? Will it cost the Treasury tax revenue in the short term if they make it financially attractive for motorists to switch to the efficient way to pay for roads or is the "Oyster Card" approach a runner? …