The Greater London Authority is planning to introduce congestion charging in London by December 2002. Critics predict that chaos will rein if the GLA presses ahead with plans to bring in such a complex system in such a short space of time in such a massive city. This week we ask:
Can a workable congestion charging scheme be introduced in London by late 2002?
Traffic speeds in central London have fallen to just 9mph and vehicles spend an average of 50% of their time in queues.
In central London it is impossible to solve transport needs simply by extending use of private cars - the scale of major new road construction which would be necessary is neither financially viable nor environmentally acceptable. It is for this reason that I believe the only way forward lies in developing a comprehensive package of measures to improve public transport and reduce traffic congestion - including congestion charging in a zone of central London.
The Road Charging Options for London report, a comprehensive study for the Government Office for London, estimated that a scheme using reliable digital camera technology could be introduced within my first term of office.
Transport for London, assisted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, have devised a project programme that would allow a congestion charging scheme to be introduced, following thorough consultation, by the end of December 2002. This is slightly earlier than envisaged by the ROCOL study because the programme provides for some elements of the process to be run in parallel.
Transport for London is confident that a significant programme of improvements in public transport, particularly buses, can be implemented within this time scale, as well as other complementary transport works to deal with traffic displaced outside the charging area.
The programme includes three periods of consultation - of key stakeholders over this summer; on the principle and detail of a scheme following the publication of my draft Transport Strategy in the first three months of next year and consultation on the legal orders probably in summer 2001.
Both GLA and Transport for London officers are talking to the Government Office for London and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on issues such as secondary legislation and the Government's plans for trials of electronic road pricing equipment and these talks are proving very productive. Ministers have repeatedly made clear that they will do everything they can to assist the development of a successful scheme in London.
No city in the world has implemented a congestion charging scheme of the size and complexity proposed for central London. In fact, despite 40 years of global talk and millions of pounds in consultancy fees, only Singapore has implemented one at all.
The great danger is that once finance ministers get involved, the new charges will morph into a proposal for increased taxation. London's Mayor will have to negotiate institutional safeguards by late 2002 or walk away.
Legally, London's overall transport strategy must be defined before the charging scheme can go ahead. Practical details must work and be fair.
Key questions first need answers.
If it makes sense at all, when in the strategy does road pricing make sense? Traffic has not actually grown in central London for 20 years. But congestion has got worse - traffic policing has run down; utilities given open day to dig roads; roads haven't been properly maintained or traffic systems tuned to travel patterns.
The new authorities must demonstrate control of basics before they can argue that all the negative apparatus of pricing is necessary.
And how can London's ignored, congested, casualty-ridden 'inner ring road' be upgraded to cope with all the extra traffic diverting to avoid charges before any scheme goes ahead?
A pricing scheme means a new bureaucracy in place before tens of thousands of payments from paying motorists and around £80M per annum in penalties can be collected. Yet London parking enforcement is no model of fairness and efficiency. DVLA systems are museum pieces in comparison with Singapore. An equivalent toll collection operation has already overwhelmed administration in Toronto.
All this risk, cost and hassle must be justified by overwhelming benefits. But can broad brush estimates of benefits from arcane mathematical models withstand common sense scrutiny? More time is needed for assessment.
All this means that, even with fast track problem solving and consensus building, it would be an outstanding performance if the basics got delivered, stalled major projects were built and a congestion charging scheme was implemented by late 2002.
The GLA plan is that vehicles entering a central London zone bordered by Hyde Park to the west, Euston Road to the north, The City of London to the east and Elephant and Castle to the south will pay a congestion charge. Cameras will photograph vehicle number plates linking them up with a database of names who had paid the charge.
Special day passes will be negotiable for occasional users. Penaltys for non payers would be around £80.
The Mayor is keen to provide exemptions for emergency vehicles, scheduled bus services, taxis and people with disabilities.
The scheme will be implemented by the GLA's transport arm Transport for London.