Will Huntingdon toll scheme drive traffic away?

Picture of a dual carriageway full of cars and trucks, and a green direction sign on the leftBBC News - Road pricing: More new roads could be funded by tolls

The battle goes on to find a way to fund a supposedly much-needed upgrade to the A14 in Cambridgeshire, which is a heavily-used cross-country dual carriageway that has two roundabouts in the middle of it, from when that bit of it was just a regional main road from Cambridge to Kettering. The government seems to favour contracting it out to a private company which will fund it through a toll. They seem not to remember the problems that toll roads have always had in this country: people avoid them.

In the UK there are very few toll roads, the majority of them being major bridges and tunnels such as the Severn Bridge, Dartford bridge and tunnel, the Humber Bridge and the Birmingham northern relief road. In Scotland, the government there funds all roads directly and all tolls have been abolished (there are many big crossings over estuaries in Scotland and most of them had tolls until recently). The problem with tolls is that they cause jams, and this delay reduces the value of the road — non-tolled roads are clear (unless unrelated factors, like accidents, block them), while tolled roads are slow, and block many other roads and are a nuisance to anyone living or working near them. Anyone who has had to travel in the Dartford area in the mornings knows all about that.

If people can use a road for free or pay a toll, they will use the free road. The northern relief road around Birmingham is a classic example; people obviously prefer to use the congested M6 through the Birmingham suburbs than the M6 Toll through the countryside, because the toll is exorbitant. The government has tried to engineer it more traffic by directing traffic going up the A38 towards Burton on Trent onto the toll road, so as to scam motorists into paying a toll they should not need to as there is a perfectly good dual carriageway alongside it. Motorists will find similar ways around any toll road scheme on the A14.

I’ve been from Birmingham to near Harwich (a major east coast port, across the river from Felixstowe, another major port) using the A14. To begin with, as you approach the M1/M6 junction on the M6 (which is where the A14 starts), if you are using a sat-nav it will direct you onto the M1 towards London. This is because the A14 is a long way round, especially for Harwich (the more direct route is via London and the A12). As you approach Cambridge, it will direct you onto the M11, presumably to pick up the A120 to Harwich at Stanstead. So, anyone going from the Midlands to Harwich will not even think of taking the A14 if they know it’s a toll. Second, although the distance is longer, there is a new dual carriageway between Milton Keynes and St Neots via Bedford, which then links into another fast road to Cambridge which leads into the A14 past where the toll is. Anyone wanting to avoid the toll will be able to use this route. If they take the A14 as far as where the toll section begins, they can avoid it by going south to St Neots on the A1, or north to Alconbury and turning around. It all depends on whether the longer distance is worth it to save the cost in terms of toll money and slowness by going the toll route.

That the A14 needs improving is beyond doubt, because it was built on the cheap in the 1990s and there are a number of bottlenecks, not all of which will be solved by an improvement in Huntingdon (the stretch from Rugby to Kettering should be a motorway, for example, and link to the M1 and M6 with a proper motorway interchange, not via an old B-road). For the improvement to be viable, people will still have to want to use the new route, and they will not use an avoidable toll road.

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