More buses in Hunts but no congestion charge

DRIVERS in Cambridgeshire s market towns will not face congestion charges, the county council promised today (Thursday) as it delivered its bid for £500million funding for a road pricing scheme in Cambridge city. Huntingdonshire, Fenland and East Cambridg

DRIVERS in Cambridgeshire's market towns will not face congestion charges, the county council promised today (Thursday) as it delivered its bid for £500million funding for a road pricing scheme in Cambridge city.

Huntingdonshire, Fenland and East Cambridgeshire will all benefit if the bid is successful. More and better bus services will be introduced on the back of increased subsidy for public transport, as the council tries to persuade people out of their cars before the charge is introduced.

The £517.3million package includes not just the charging system itself and huge improvements to bus services across much of the county, but more trains between Ely, Cambridge and London, extensive bus priority measures, extension to park-and-ride operating times and measures to promote walking and cycling into and in the city.

Today's bid is for about £80million of the money from a £200million pot for 2008/09, part of the Government's Transport Innovation Fund from which the county council has already had £1.5million to work up the £4-a-day charging scheme.

The council is set to mount a comprehensive consultation exercise with residents next month. "We know we shall need to change what we plan, possibly quite substantially, when we have the benefit of people's views and ideas," the leader, Councillor Shona Johnstone, told The Hunts Post.

"But two things we are sure about: if we get this money, we shall be committed to introducing the congestion charge, and we won't introduce it until we have most of the £500million investment in place."

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One of the first moves would be to extend operating hours of park-and-ride sites, which are used extensively by visitors from Hunts, Fenland and East Cambs, to cover 6am until midnight, so that the service can be used for business and leisure as well as shopping.

Current operating hours are 7am to 8pm on weekdays with shorter hours at weekends.

The bid would also fund leasing of rolling stock to add trains on the Ely-Cambridge-Kings Cross route, which suffers from serious peak-time overcrowding on parts of the route. CCC is already talking to Network Rail about additional train paths.

"Since 1990, as a result of fast-paced economic and housing growth, car use in Cambridgeshire has increased at more than twice the national rate," the council has told the Government. With plans for further major housing and employment growth, this growth in use of the private car, if unchecked, is possibly the single greatest risk facing the county.

"However, it also presents us with great opportunities to implement bold and radical changes in transport provision - changes that, while benefiting Cambridgeshire, can also show the way forward for other parts of the UK."

Not only has overall bus ridership increased more than 20 per cent in the county in the last five years - bucking the downward national trend everywhere else outside London - but park-and-ride use has increased by more than 70 per cent since 2001. Now the county wants to build on its success in containing road traffic in spite of comparatively modest housing growth to reduce it by 10 per cent in spite of massive housing expansion in east Cambridge and at Northstowe over the next decade.

Cllr Johnstone is encouraged by the council's experience that initial opposition to the charging scheme is being overturned when the need is explained to residents - opposition has slumped from 54 per cent to 36 per cent when they learn what is actually proposed and why.

The charge will apply for only two hours in the morning weekday peak - from 7.30am until 9.30am Monday to Friday. "Some Cambridge residents think they should be exempt because their journeys are wholly within Cambridge, taking their children to school three days a week. But they don't seem to realise that they are part of the problem," she said.

At present no exemptions are planned from the flat-rate charge other than for emergency vehicles. In reality, there would be no point in not exempting public service vehicles that are part of the solution. The problems will come with private hire vehicles that are only loosely controlled. Drivers may have to pay the charge to avoid widespread abuse.

The charge could have the advantage of reducing pollution in the city, but it is aimed only at carbon dioxide, not at oxides of nitrogen, which are the real problem in urban areas. Nonetheless, new buses may be hybrid vehicles that run in pollution-free mode in the city.

Compared with doing the minimum needed to control congestion, the package proposed would cut mechanised road journeys by 27 per cent by 2021 and distance travelled by 22 per cent, the county says. Park-and-ride trips would rise by 89 per cent and public transport journeys by 72 per cent.

Moreover, it is excellent value for money, with a benefit to cost ration of more than three to one.

"Within Cambridge the package will result in a 47 per cent decrease in vehicle delay," the Government has been told. "By tackling the congestion problem, social inclusion issues may be addressed. In addition, through increases in public transport network coverage and service frequency, the package will help to provide better links between residential areas and key employment and service locations."

Although it could technically be implemented in 2011/12, the scheme will not start until later, Cllr Johnstone said, because insufficient alternative transport would be in place.

Congestion charging is expected to raise £40million in the first year and cost around 25 per cent of that to administer.