The Government is consulting on changes to the tolls for the Severn Crossings. The two road bridges on the M4 and M48 between England and Wales currently charge drivers for the westbound journey.
The proposals to reduce the charges will be welcomed by some: but we’re concerned that an isolated change to toll levels is a missed opportunity that risks causing more problems than it will solve.
The consultation sets out a series of proposals, covering the level of charges, how and when the tolls will apply and any exemptions. Just days after the most recent rise in the toll, the proposal is to cut the cost for a car from £6.70 to £3 – but to make it payable both ways rather than one way as at present. So a return trip would cost £6.
There’s a more dramatic cut in costs for light freight vehicles which currently pay £13.40 for a crossing but will pay the same charge as cars in future. HGV costs will stay neutral, with a £20 one-way charge replaced by £10 each way.
The Government is also proposing to introduce “free flow” charging technology as at the Dartford Crossing, rather than via a toll booth. This is a sensible move but not a cure for congestion: as Dartford shows, free flow doesn’t stop excessive traffic levels from causing queues.
Applying a charge in both directions makes sense. It will be welcomed by communities along the Wye Valley who currently suffer from toll-dodging west-bound traffic. But the good news ends there.
We’re concerned that cutting the tolls will simply increase traffic levels overall. Some folk will continue to take alternative routes to avoid the charge, while traffic over the Crossings is also predicted to grow.
The independent forecasts commissioned by the Department for Transport indicate that the toll changes mean traffic growth will increase by 45% between 2018 and 2027. This will all be adding to road maintenance costs, air pollution and other problems. And because vehicles don’t vanish when they leave the motorway, this will mean more traffic on local roads across England and Wales too.
It’s striking that there is not a single environmental consideration mentioned in the Government consultation document. All this at a time when Welsh Government plans for the M4 relief road already show a shocking disregard for the natural environment.
At a time when concerns about air pollution are rising every day, there’s a huge missed opportunity to make the toll levels vary by vehicle emission type. We’d like to see discounts for low and zero emission vehicles – and higher charges for the most polluting ones.
The changes are prompted by the return of the crossings to public ownership: this gives the Government a real opening to take a broader approach, linking up plans for the Severn Crossings with important policies to cut air pollution, shift more freight onto rail and reduce transport’s carbon emissions.
Instead we have an isolated change to toll levels that risks causing more problems than it will solve.