Would road user charging work in practice?

 

Despite the recent implementation of significant reforms to boost investment in roads, the long-term condition of one of our most valuable public assets remains a major concern for UK business.

This is hardly surprising given the importance of roads to the national economy. Almost 90% of respondents to the CBI/AECOM Infrastructure Survey – published last month – see roads as either crucial or beneficial to their operations.

Given the high proportion of UK companies that rely on the road network, the message to government is clear: investment in roads is critical to business.

”Local
AECOM - leading infrastructure analysts and consultants

At a minimum, 96% of businesses expect to see current capital spending commitments delivered, providing clear justification for the Government’s £15bn Road Investment Strategy (RIS).

Yet more than half of respondents want to see further increases in investment beyond what was promised in the last parliament.

With the vast majority (96%) of firms concerned about congestion on Britain’s roads and more than 80% also concerned about poor quality, there is clearly a need for upgrades that maintain existing roads as well as add capacity.

Importantly, improvements to the local road network are considered just as important as improvements to motorways. With businesses equally reliant on both networks, underinvestment in local roads could create problems for businesses that risk undermining the benefits of improvements in the Strategic Road Network (SRN). And with the RIS firmly focused on the SRN, there is a robust argument for additional funding in local roads. This is perhaps unsurprising given the underinvestment in local roads experienced in recent years.

Yet there was a rather unexpected finding in the survey: almost three-quarters of firms are open to some form of roads pricing if it leads to greater investment. To put this in context, 30% are open to roads pricing and 42% are open to roads pricing in return for lower roads taxes, indicating possible support in principle for road user charging of some description.

However, it remains to be seen whether the concept would work in practice. The use of road charging to address urban traffic congestion in large UK conurbations, such as the congestion charge in London, has been considered for some time.

Road charging can also provide a revenue return on specific pieces of privately funded infrastructure. Yet widespread inter-urban road charging systems similar to those used in other countries could prove more difficult to implement.

”Local
Dave Beddell of AECOM

Compared with some of the UK’s European neighbours, key corridors of our strategic network operate in relatively close proximity to one another. They exist in parallel with regional road networks, offering road users alternative ‘free’ routes with minimal delays.

The economic and political viability of implementing road user charging on a wider scale therefore remains complex. But our survey findings suggest that UK business is receptive to new ways of roads funding provided it leads to improvements in the capacity and operating condition of our roads.

Roads feature in seven of the Government’s top 40 priority infrastructure investments outlined in the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP). With the NIP expected to continue to evolve during this parliament, 98% of infrastructure providers say that an evidence-based assessment of need would be a welcome development.

Basing the delivery of a long-term strategy for UK infrastructure on assessment of need is of course favourable in theory. Yet more detail will be required to demonstrate how this could work cross-sector. Bringing together existing frameworks for prioritising the economic return on investments across different areas of competing – and often seemingly contradictory – infrastructure needs will be difficult.

Developing a data-driven approach is the likely answer and industry will no doubt look to the newly formed National Infrastructure Commission to advise on this issue. One thing is clear: the business case for additional investment in roads is compelling.

Dave Beddell, Market Sector Director, Strategic Highways – Europe, AECOM

 

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