Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Road pricing petition shakes Blair

In 2006, Tony Blair invited e-petitions to be set up on his website for the public to put their names to, as part of extending democracy. This, of course, encouraged nutters galore, and there are over 3000 of them. Many are semi-literate, some are crazy (Ban 4x4 owners' clubs, ban hoodies, cull seals), but one has worked in getting attention. Nearly 1.8 million people have signed a petition against road pricing.
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The detailed wording of the petition is:
"The idea of tracking every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong. Road pricing is already here with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel - the more tax you pay. It will be an unfair tax on those who live apart from families and poorer people who will not be able to afford the high monthly costs. Please Mr Blair - forget about road pricing and concentrate on improving our roads to reduce congestion."
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UK government policy on road pricing is to encourage local authorities to pursue local schemes, with all surplus revenue dedicated to funding local transport projects. London and Durham do this now, and a lot of other cities are considering it too - partly to relieve chronic congestion, partly because the government is willing to fund more projects if those cities pursue road pricing.
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However, wider than that the government has indicated a long term policy to introduce national road pricing that will vary by distance, time of day, location and vehicle type. Now this is economically rational by itself. Britain has the worst congestion in Europe on average, and while there is scope for plenty of modest road improvements (especially in London, where Ken Livingstone is opposed to increasing road capacity), the real problem is that too many people want to use free roads at the same time.
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Fuel tax isn't an answer, Britain has the highest petrol tax in the world (50.9p/l or NZ$1.40!), and none of it is dedicated to transport (unlike NZ where it is now all spent on transport). Raising fuel tax now means that road users in the countryside or driving off peak are paying a punitive level of tax.
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However the government has done an abysmal job of selling road pricing. For starters it has not ever responded to the nonsense about it tracking everyone's movements. Anyone with a basic understanding of GPS knows it is not a "spy in the sky" satellite - it broadcasts signals that a unit in your vehicle triangulates and determines itself where it is. GPS satellites receive nothing from GPS receivers. Secondly, the technology to be used doesn't need to transmit location data anywhere - it can be used to calculate a charge and deduct it from a prepaid card, but only transmit location data when you fail to pay. It doesn't help that the Blair government is pursuing compulsory national ID cards or has a national DNA database of everyone arrested - in other words it can't be trusted on privacy.
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It also has failed to state clearly what has often been mentioned, that road pricing must come with a countervailing cut or removal of fuel and road tax (similar to motor vehicle licensing in NZ).
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Most importantly, the real problem is that doing something like this nationally is a huge risk for central government. It would be far easier and less riskier to commercialise or privatise the highway network, and let it be tolled to pay for all of its costs, and then make councils operate their roads commercially too and do the same thing. In any case, national road pricing wont exist before the next election, though the London scheme has just been extended, and there may be another local scheme or two before 2010. Blair has responded to the petitioners in a way that isn't bad, but probably not convincing enough for doubters.

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