Local journeys ‘could escape A14 tolls’

PRIME Minister David Cameron on Monday singled out the A14 as a potential candidate for road tolling or some other mechanism for attracting private sector cash to Britain’s road network.

But, even if a new tolled A14 through Cambridgeshire were to be built, smart electronic mechanisms could be rolled out to exempt local journeys from the charge, according to Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly.

“There’s a groundswell of popular opinion that people in Huntingdon don’t want to pay for going to Cambridge, so whatever is done should not impede local traffic,” he told The Hunts Post.

In a speech on infrastructure the Prime Minister, who said congestion was costing the economy �7billion a year, added: “Road tolling is one option – but we are only considering this for new, not existing, capacity. For example, we’re looking at how improvements to the A14 could be part-funded through tolling.

“But we now need to be more ambitious. Why is it that other infrastructure – for example water – is funded by private sector capital through privately-owned, independently-regulated, utilities ... but roads in Britain call on the public finances for funding?

“We need to look urgently at the options for getting large-scale private investment into the national roads network, from sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and other investors.”

Mr Djanogly said it was now clear that the Government at the highest level had now recognised the importance of upgrading the A14 to the national and regional economy.

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“There has been a sea-change in the Government’s approach to the A14. Now, when Government talks about road schemes, it’s right up there in the thinking. The Treasury and 10 Downing Street are prioritising things that are going to pick up economic performance, and the A14 is a key issue for advancing the national economy and that of the East of England.

“This [the start of a debate about future roads funding] does not mean it [the A14] has been kicked into the long grass. I know a lot of work is going on, and the report [on options] is going to happen in the next few months.

“The other ting people don’t seem to appreciate is that the electronics have moved on significantly so that, for example, local people could not be charged for local journeys.” He believed such a scheme was already in use in Australia.

“I don’t know how reliable it is, but everything should be looked at.”

Cambridgeshire’s Liberal Democrats have no philosophical objection to road tolling, but also want to protect local people from charges.

“We would like to see some way of separating local light traffic from heavy traffic between Spittals and Godmanchester, perhaps by imposing a weight limit,” said County Councillor Peter Downes, who also leads the party’s group on Huntingdonshire District Council.

He acknowledged that exemptions would have to be made available to local businesses.

“The present situation cannot be allowed to continue. It’s not good from the national perspective nor from the local perspective.”

He said the abandoned �1.2bn Highways Agency scheme, which included a new southern bypass of Huntingdon and Godmanchester, had been too ambitious and too expensive.

“An intermediate solution would be to put the heavy traffic on a new toll road between Ellington and Fen Drayton and widen it from there on, but not to require local traffic to use it.”

His ideal solution would also see toll-free dualling of the A428 completed between Caxton Gibbet and the Black Cat junction with the A1 and A421 south-west of St Neots.

Campaigner John Bridge, who is chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, urged that the debate about funding mechanisms should not further delay improvement of the A14.

“We have to look at all options and understand the consequences of all options,” he said. “Motorists already provide �45bn to the exchequer, and only �9bn is invested back into transport. We do have to find other ways of finding the capital for road programmes – and I’m very much hoping there will be options other than tolling.”

The Government’s initiative was welcomed by the CBI and Institution of Civil Engineers, though the Institute of Advanced Motorists was cautious anout the prospect of tolling new roads.

CBI director-general John Cridland said: “Every �1 spent on infrastructure adds �3 to the economy as a whole. In the short-term, we need contracts to be agreed with companies to maintain our roads and repair the potholes. In the longer-term, investor confidence will be critical to injecting new money into removing bottlenecks, reducing commuting times and helping firms to transport their goods.”

ICE director-general Nick Baveystock added: “Government is right to investigate more radical funding models and consider how infrastructure investment might be better managed. This will be extremely important in ensuring potential investors get a predictable rate of return.”

But IAM director of policy and research Neil Greig said: “British drivers simply don’t trust the Government to come up with a new way of paying for roads that will not lead to increased costs in the long run. Drivers already pay far more in taxes and duties than they get back in investment in new roads.

“New roads are safer but what is needed is the release of more existing motoring taxes as part of a long term investment plan to target pinch points and eliminate the maintenance backlog.

“Tolls can be an attractive proposition to many low mileage drivers but only if current taxes are cut to compensate for new charges.”

THE Government is suggesting private-sector involvement in infrastructure investment could be regulated on a similar model to the water industry.

Anglian Water’s Ciaran Nelson told The Hunts Post: “It’s not clear what the Government is proposing, but it works for the water industry and has allowed us to unlock significant investment in infrastructure.

“The industry has spent �90bn in the 20 years since privatisation,, and it works for customers as well.”