HOW that the Government has, unsurprisingly, balked at the idea of spending £1.3billion on the A14, the idea of a private toll road has once again reared its head. Once and for all this idea needs to be put to sleep. The theory sounds fine – those who choose to pay get an enhanced experience, those who don’t pay still benefit from reduced congestion, and the private sector makes some money.
The reality is rather less rosy. Only one toll road, the M6 toll, has been built, taking 12 years in the process. Its operator, Midland Expressway, should have benefited from an era of surging traffic levels and chronic congestion on the M6 – yet it made losses of £26m a year since its opening, and the number of vehicles using it has never reached expectations. Meanwhile, journey times on the original M6 have barely changed. No wonder there's been no appetite for more.
An A14 Toll may only take eight years to construct, but we still need to look at where we'll be in 2020, not next week, to see it will be a disaster. Nationally, traffic levels are falling for a number of reasons – recession, advances in remote working technology, and high fuel prices caused by political instability and demand from rapidly industrialising nations. Long-awaited improvements to the east-west rail network are coming on-stream between now and 2014, which will mean less containerised freight on the A14. New rail services recently introduced along the existing UK high speed line will also help. For those that do drive, most will be hard-pressed commuters, unwilling to pay thousands a year on top of existing road taxes just to get to work. The toll road will be a white elephant before it even opens.
What the A14 needs is a combination of simple – and cheap – changes like banning lorries from the outside lane between Bar Hill and Brampton, junction improvements to reduce the number of accidents, variable speed limits (which have worked on the M25) and ultimately a replacement for the notorious viaduct in Huntingdon. What it does not need is a personal lane for the Cambridgeshire Clarksons.