My honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport (Dr Ladyman) has made the following Ministerial Statement.
The QEII Bridge at Dartford was built under a concession agreement whereby it would return to public ownership after the construction costs were paid for through tolls at the crossing. This happened in March 2003. The Government decided at that time to implement a regulatory charge at the crossing at broadly the same levels as the tolls, using powers in the Transport Act 2000. The reason for this was to manage the high demand for use of the crossings.
The department has been reviewing the charging regime in the light of current traffic levels, likely future demand and broader transport policy considerations. Given the forecast growth in traffic, maintaining a charge for the use of the crossing is the only credible way of keeping traffic at manageable levels in the medium term. However, we have concluded that the case for imposing a charge at night when traffic is much lighter is outweighed by the potential gains from encouraging traffic to avoid peak times. The department therefore intends to drop the charge for all vehicles using the crossing between the hours of 22.00 and 06.00. The department believes that this will be an incentive, for lorries in particular, to make journeys outside busy periods where this is an option. Our analysis indicates that if daytime charges are left at the current levels then traffic will continue to grow, leading to worsening congestion. Cars have been paying a £1 rate for 10 years.
The case for increasing charges has been clear for some time. One reason why increases for cars have not previously been proposed is because of concerns that multiple coin transactions are likely to cause delays at the booths. For some years it has been possible to pay tolls electronically, using microwave “tags”. Such systems are common on the Continent and in the USA. Dartford, and some other tolled roads and crossings in the UK, already offer the option of paying via a tag. This means of payment saves costs for operators and allows drivers a smoother passage through the charging booths.
The Government also wish to mitigate the impact of charge increases on those who depend on regular use of the crossing for work or business. The Government therefore propose that charges for car drivers paying cash should increase to £1.50. Under these proposals, drivers who choose to use a dart tag would pay a significantly discounted rate of £1, which is the current cash charge. With more people using the dart tag, traffic flow through the charging booths will be smoother, and regular users such as commuters will experience little financial impact.
The implementation of the new charges will be made using a charging order under the Transport Act 2000 and the Government will, as is required, consult on this. We expect to launch that consultation by December 2006 with a view to having the order in place by October 2007 and the new regime coming into effect by January 2008.
In the longer term, we expect demand for use of the crossing to continue to grow. Various options for new capacity across the Thames have been considered in the past, but the Government believe the issue now needs to be moved forward, particularly in the light of development plans for the Thames Gateway. The department will therefore be commissioning a study to look at the options for addressing traffic issues in the longer term, including the possibility of a new crossing. Work will start immediately on specifying the scope of the study with a view to letting the study as early as possible in 2007.