UK’s New Coalition and Lorry Tolling

The new UK Government published "The Coalition: our programme for government" containing at section 30 twelve points "to improve the well-being and quality of life" and ' to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable".

A handsome list until you study the language. Eleven of the 12 points use eleven assertive verbs: mandate, grant, reform, make, establish, support, turn, support, commit, stop and tackle. Unfortunately the only point that requires any political courage uses the much safer verb phrase "work towards".  Specifically, "we will work towards the introduction of a new system of HGV road user charging to ensure a fairer arrangement for UK hauliers."

What this means is that they will talk about this with their tails well tucked-in.

Any tolling system costs money to set up and to operate. The history to date is that these systems variously absorb from 20-40% of gross revenues. Since foreign hauliers comprise a slim minority of UK HGVs, they can hardly refund patriated vehicles while charging only foreign vehicles, as is often dangled. With political expediency begging for revenue neutrality, a costly system to collect what is effectively seen as a tax will be unacceptable. The argument that government needs money militates against revenue neutrality and an expensive collection system will destroy any residual appeal.

The Department for Transport, as everyone knows, has been running a set of trials for the past two years that have shown a high degree of both technical and commercial promise for autonomous tolling telematics. As is also becoming increasingly apparent there is no reason for a government to mandate and purchase a dedicated tolling system. Proven telematics technology now permits inexpensive (under £100) units to perform dozens of safety, navigation, parking, traveler and insurance services in addition to tolling management. That makes if possible to have private companies operate profitable services while providing tolling services with little or no capital or operational expense to the taxpayer.

In this circumstance, to deploy a paper vignette system would be absurd and installing a large numbers of DSRC gantries, virtually immoral. The way to do this using private risk capital and 2010 engineering innovation is to set up two to four tolling licenses for the UK and let those for ten-year increments to two to four commercial operators. These operators would be offered a small percentage (3-5%) of tolls collected and left to their own devices to determine competitive services, under reasonable regulations, and to earn a profit.

May the smartest companies do well.

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