By Eamonn Butler (August 18 2008)
We pay for the particular clothes we choose to wear, the particular home we live in, and the particular foods we eat. So why should we pay for roads any differently?
At present, those of us who choose to drive on busy city streets in the morning and afternoon peaks, contributing to congestion, pay just the same 50p a litre as Sunday-afternoon drivers on wide-open rural roads. It gives people no incentive to use roads like the scarce resource they are.
That's why I'm in favour of road pricing. It would alert people to the real value of roads. Users would be more aware of the congestion, noise, accidents, and stop-start pollution that their peak-time road use impose on everyone else. And it would make road planners more precisely aware of where motorists were actually prepared to pay for new and better roads.
Yes, there would be winners (mostly in rural areas) and losers (those in cities whose travel times were inflexible). But user charging, for roads or anything else, is a more rational funding mechanism than indiscriminate taxation.
However, the fact that over a million people signed a petition against road pricing shows that the public just don't trust politicians to make road pricing fair. They think it will be an additional tax, not a substitute for car and fuel taxes.
They don't believe that the authorities will give them alternatives to the car, like better public transport or better cycle paths and walkways. They don't believe that politicians can be trusted with the knowledge or where and when they use the car.
And yet, we need the many benefits that road pricing can produce. So how the system be made trustworthy?
Easy. Get politicians out of it. Put the roads into the hands of an independent roads trust, answerable to road users rather than politicians and officials. Something like was proposed, in fact, when the "road fund" motoring tax came in.
Ensure it provides alternatives to those who want to stop using their cars on the high-priced, peak-time, congested roads. Let it spend the revenues on road improvements where drivers demonstrate that they are prepared to pay, rather than where politicians think a new bridge might win votes.
That - and the prospect of traffic flowing freely once more - might just restore confidence in the idea.
Published by telegraph.co.uk here