Ruth Kelly, transport secretary, will on Wednesday invite the private sector to come up with innovative schemes to tackle gridlock on Britain’s motorways, including the possibility of turning hard shoulders into toll lanes to beat the jams.
Ms Kelly wants to increase the use of public-private schemes to tackle congestion on the worst affected stretches of motorways, although she has shied away from more general road pricing.
She will announce a multi-billion pound publicly funded package of road improvements, but believes that Britain can learn from the US in using private sector innovation to deliver more capacity.
Ms Kelly is particularly impressed by the public-private partnership on Washington DC’s Capital Beltway, which has added two additional lanes to the highway giving commuters a choice between high occupancy toll lanes and regular lanes.
She is considering using up to 500 miles of British motorway hard shoulders in peak hours. Her officials say one option – among many – is to place tolls on those hard shoulders.
The British Chambers of Commerce has already criticised Ms Kelly’s lack of ambition, arguing that new roads are the answer rather than the use of hard shoulders.
Meanwhile, Theresa Villiers, Tory transport spokeswoman, has claimed the scheme is a lame recogntion that the government’s road pricing scheme was “dead in the water”.
The British motorway network is already being opened up to the private sector, largely in the area of building, repairing and maintaining roads.
Last week the Highways Agency announced the biggest ever private finance initiative for roads – Connect Plus was named as the preferred bidder for a £5bn contract to maintain and widen the M25.
But Ms Kelly will signal that she wants private companies to come up with more innovative solutions for tackling congestion.
One such project was the M6 toll, a privately operated road, which bypasses the congested West Midlands.
No other scheme of similar scale is on the table at the moment, but Ms Kelly believes tolls on existing roads could be used to beat congestion.
Opening hard shoulders in peak hours would require the installation of technology to measure traffic flows, connected to overhead gantries authorising the use of the emergency lane when congestion reaches a certain point.
Charging a toll to drive down those lanes – effectively bypassing jams – is one way Ms Kelly could recoup the cost of the new technology, although her officials insist all options are on the table.
Under the US model, additional lanes are provided free of charge to high occupancy vehicles, while single-occupancy cars could pay a toll to use them to speed up their journeys.