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BIRD'S EYE VIEW: Why business shouldn't be against all toll roads

Date: 17 September 2008

Guy Bird is our editor-at-large and political columnist

News the Government is considering segregated toll lanes for major UK motorways by 2010 is no bad thing if your business really wants to get from A to B on time, writes Guy Bird

It's a well-accepted practice with airlines that business and first class passengers can pay for the privilege of being fast-tracked through airports. Why should roads be any different?

According to, Government ministers are close to signing contracts with a handful of firms - said to include Trafficmaster - to run and monitor technology trials that would track and charge vehicles for using special lanes by 2010.

Routes under consideration are any motorways due for widening or where the hard shoulder could be utilised, and are thought to include the M25, the M42 near Birmingham plus the M27 and M3 close to Southampton. The report goes on to say that "costs for routes will depend on the length of journey, meaning some trips could cost as much as £5".

Is that really so bad? Such a cost is small beer compared to knowing your drivers have a much higher chance of arriving at their business destinations on time, especially if the scheme could dispense with traditional tollbooths at each end (and their potential for increased congestion and pollution).

Of course, you'd have to make sure your fleet was fitted with appropriate black boxes and that your drivers behaved themselves in those lanes as the tracking systems could easily detect speeding offences between entry and exit points, but maybe that's fair enough if the pay-off is clearer roads and reduced journey times.

As I've said before, there are good precedents for such a move. From a personal perspective, driving down to Geneva via a series of toll roads in France for a few dozen Euros is far preferable to slugging it out with local traffic all the way. Would you really tell a client their delivery was late or meeting delayed because your business felt it necessary to avoid a few reasonably priced tolls?

And of course, the difference between this less ambitious scheme and nationwide road pricing is that it appears easier to organise and fund and wouldn't involve your whole driving life being put under surveillance.

Obviously, prices will have to stay sufficiently high relative to other options to keep such roads unclogged by those on non-essential trips, but the currently expensive UK pump prices and the credit crunch seem to be calming overall demand pretty well.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of extra taxes for the sake of it and I'll always try to find a way to avoid the £8 London congestion charge if I can because the levy doesn't match the benefit (there are quicker, cheaper options for me). Indeed TfL has recently admitted congestion is back to pre-charging days, with increased road works and road space reduction schemes blamed, but in the right situations toll roads can be a useful tool in the box to ease congestion. Fleets should cautiously support them.