A consultation is underway over plans to increase charges at the Dartford Crossing from £1.50 to £2.00 for cars later this year with further increases in 2012.
In the meantime, from 1 July charges will be suspended for a six-month trial period when conditions become ‘extreme’ – to you and me, this means when queues stretch as far as junction 4 (Orpington) or junction 28 (Chelmsford). Anyone who’s ever used the crossing during rush hour could be forgiven for thinking that queues that long are pretty much a daily occurrence but the Highways Agency wouldn’t agree. See here for more details on when suspension would occur.
Free-flow charging is also under consideration. This would allow pre-payment and reduce the delay caused by fumbling around looking for coins but would involve considerable re-design of the road layout. The DfT aim to get this in place by 2013.
The Department for Transport (DfT) consultation document trots out that old line: ‘The increase in charges reduces congestion by dissuading some road users from using the congested crossing.’ Quite why the DfT think that anyone would use the crossing for anything other than necessity is a matter for debate but if a motorist is determined to pay £1.50 to cross the river then an extra 50p probably isn’t going to put them off. The two-stage increase is described in the consultation document as a measure to 'assist users in adjusting to the overall increase' though the cynical amongst us might see it in a different light. Here are the proposed increases:
Lack of river crossings in the east is an ongoing issue; Dartford has been operating over capacity for a number of years and the Blackwall Tunnel has its own problems which wouldn’t be improved by receiving Dartford’s overflow. The DfT also propose new crossings at Dartford, the Swanscombe peninsula or Tilbury-Gravesend.
The fact that charges for using the crossing remain at all has been the subject of criticism; originally they were meant to be scrapped once the cost of building the crossing had been paid for. This was deemed to have happened in 2002, but instead road user pricing was introduced with the fine distinction that it was a ‘charge’ and not a ‘toll’.
Roads minister Mike Penning said:
‘The Dartford-Thurrock River Crossing is a vital piece of transport infrastructure that has brought huge economic benefits and opportunities to the country. But the simple fact is many more motorists want to use the Crossing than it was designed for and this leads to frequent lengthy delays, frustration and damage to the economy.’
However, Gravesham Borough Council leader John Burden believes that abolishing the charges completely is a better option:
‘This would get rid of the serious congestion currently experienced and it would also relieve local residents of the huge burden of paying the toll. The crossing has more than paid for itself but it is now treated by the Tory-led government as a cash cow.’
Labour’s shadow secretary for transport, Maria Eagle shares this view:
'The proposals will hit motorists who use this vital link hard. At a time when drivers are already being squeezed by the VAT increase on fuel imposed by the Chancellor, the government should be doing all it can not to add further burdens. The government will struggle to justify toll increases on this scale and they should think again.'
The consultation will run until 23 September. To respond to the consultation, see here.