Road pricing, past, present and future

by | Oct 5, 2015 | EVs, Policy

There is considerable evidence, from Singapore, London, Stockholm and elsewhere, that congestion charging is acceptable to public opinion, provided that certain conditions are met, namely: equity, revenue-neutrality (or alternatively that any revenues are re-invested in transport), minimal cost overheads, and that people who will be affected have experience that road pricing works.

Road pricing for cars, whether electronic or manual, is most familiar to us in the UK through the M6 toll, and through river and estuarial crossings such as the Dartford Crossing, the Humber, Tamar and Severn bridges, and smaller and more local schemes such as the Pangbourne to Whitchurch crossing of the Thames in Berkshire. We also encounter it when we travel on French, Spanish or Italian motorways.

Road pricing for trucks is now commonplace in Europe, with electronic schemes of various kinds in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, UK (the “HGV Road User Levy”), Poland and Hungary, and planned in other countries such as Russia – though violent protests in France caused the abandonment of their proposed “ecotaxe” scheme.

In both the UK and the US, toll (“turnpike”) roads have a long history going back to the 18th and 19th centuries. In the UK roads were made free at the point of use in Victorian times – though of course we still pay for them through our taxes.

There are many more toll roads, some of them still called turnpikes, in the United States, though again most highways are “free” at the point of use – that is, paid for from the Highway Trust Fund which gets its income from the “gas tax” – to which individual States add a local tax to pay for local roads. However, the gas tax has not kept pace with inflation, and the Highway Trust Fund has had to be topped up from general taxation.

The problem is compounded by the fact that modern vehicles are far more fuel-efficient than their predecessors, resulting in falling revenues – not to mention the increasing use of electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles which pay no gas tax at all.

Because of this a number of US states, led by Oregon, are looking into alternative methods of raising revenue to pay for roads. A pilot study involving 5,000 motorists (including state legislators) has just started. Volunteers are charged 1.5 cents per mile, and will be given a credit for the gas tax they have paid. If the trial is successful, legislation will be introduced in Oregon to permit state-wide road pricing.

In the UK the Office for Budget Responsibility says there will be a £13.2bn pa revenue loss from motor taxes by 2030, with fuel duty falling from 1.7% to 1.1% of GDP, and VED from 0.3% to 0.1%.

We should also bear in mind that, as the UK Eddington Report put it in 2006, “the potential for benefits from a well-designed, large-scale road pricing scheme is unrivalled by any other intervention” – a view endorsed by The UK Department for Transport in “Towards a Sustainable Transport System”.

Dr John Walker is Honorary Secretary of the ITS(UK) Road User Charging Interest Group and Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Transportation Research Group, University of Southampton.


John Walker

John Walker – Honorary Secretary of the ITS(UK) Road User Charging Interest Group