Anger over possible commercialisation of new road projects and road pricing
In the last week, my excuse for the slight reduction of blog posts can be blamed on the rediscovery of an old computer game, revived by a bunch of transport geeks like yours truly. Entitled OpenTTD, it is an open source build of the excellent Transport Tycoon Deluxe game, hitherto released by Microprose in 1995. The goal of the game is to become a (ahem!) Transport Tycoon by 2050.
Besides being a fun little game where transport nerds like me wish to build an integrated transport network, the excesses of cut-throat competition – seen on today’s bus routes – and free market economics – is inherent. You could become a tycoon by concreting over every bit of countryside, leaving your locals stranded with crap bus services and screwing your competitors. (Where’ve we seen this before?) Today’s devotees have added a greater number of vehicles resulting in a game more relevant to contemporary practice. There is one exception to this: a road pricing element for car owners.
This week’s announcement has a whiff of the lackadaisical approach to road building seen in the above game. In addition to our incumbent A-roads and motorways, David Cameron has announced a plan for further road building. At odds with most previous plans (often funded by local and central government sources), future motorways and A-roads would be built using private finance.
Contrary to some sources, some of our A-roads and motorways are already maintained by private sector business. For example, the A74(M), the A14, and the M6 Toll road. The latter was sanctioned by Blair’s Labour government, and it was hoped that it would become the first of a few toll roads complementary to incumbent free motorways. The M6 Toll didn’t quite get its projected traffic flows and many motorists opted for – as they’ve done since 1972 – the Birmingham and Coventry section of the M6.
Cameron’s plan for road pricing aims to go further. Apart from ‘improving customer choice’ and introducing competition to our motorways and arterial roads, his government aims to introduce road pricing by means of Toff Lanes. Take for example the now discontinued bus and coach lane on the M4, or the 2+ person lanes on the M62: imagine if the 2+ symbol on the latter was replaced by a £ sign.
Besides privately funded toll roads, an A-road or motorway could be taken over by a private sector contractor. At present, A-roads and motorways (as we know from our experiences with road gritting at passenger, driver or pedestrian level) are maintained by the Department of Transport and paid for through road taxes and income tax. The remainder comes under local government. It is proposed that a private contractor could take over parts of the DoT’s roads, with 100 year long leases. (Mirroring art in OpenTTD, the local bus company could – potentially – take over the A580)
On existent roads, the result will be greater congestion than at present; a Toff Lane on the East Lancashire Road would inhibit commuters – bus users and drivers alike – their ability to get to and from work on time. On privately hired vehicles, passengers may incur extra charges if their company opts for the quieter Toff Lane over the traffic packed proletarian one. Then, in future years, contractors may choose to maintain the Toff Lane over the rest of the work owing to its profitability. Over time, some roads could become Toff Roads, returning us to the age of Turnpike Trusts. In future years, the pedestrian – as well as the motorist, haulier and cyclist – could be stung for the privilege of getting from Manchester to Liverpool in a single day. What about emergency vehicles?
A liberalised approach to the construction of future road projects (privately funded and paid for at toll booths by the likes of yours truly, of course) would be environmentally damaging. Some bodies may court private sector funding as a bid to salvage rejected projects, hitherto denied public sector funding.
I’d have thought that the lukewarm response of the M6 Toll would have kicked the notion of toll roads into the long grass. Besides being anathema to environmental conservation, they also risk alienating the Top Gear Tim vote, hauliers (who have traditionally supported Conservative party policies) and anyone being forced to work in excess of 50 miles away from home.
As proved with the fiasco also known as rail privatisation, a similar system for our principal roads would make for a more expensive and poorer service. Having been to several away matches by coach – and peed off by the road works and/or speed restrictions en route to Guiseley, Histon, Blyth and Colwyn Bay, our principal roads are generally well maintained. Quality control could be cut, meaning more road works, slower journey times, and a few more garage owners and insurance companies rubbing their hands. Oh, and more missed away kick-offs because of the fast lane on the M62 being allocated to the super-rich.
The roads, like our railways, utilities and healthcare, are too important for being subject to the whims of the free market. Outsourcing our motorways and A-roads to private contractors will inhibit our ability to push for, or oppose improvements, campaign against higher tolls or complain about shoddy maintenance. Getting from A to B shouldn’t be subject to the idea of “I’ll take the Woodhead Pass from Sheffield to Hollingworth because it is cheaper than the Snake Pass”. Weather conditions can put paid to future monetisation, making a competitive market impossible across the Dark Peak.
A great many may agree that the roads are too sacrosanct for market forces. It is only our government, more than two chevrons apart from the rest of us who are thinking otherwise.
S.V., 19 March 2012.