LONDON MAYOR Ken Livingstone has agreed to back the introduction of electronic congestion charging in the capital by December 2002 and abandoned original plans for a low-cost paper-based pilot scheme, NCE can reveal.
Livingstone will launch a consultation document next week setting out his new plans for a £150M system using digital cameras to read licence plates and match them to a database of approved vehicles.
Current proposals will see the cameras used to enforce congestion charges in a central London zone with drivers paying £5 and HGVs £15 to enter the zone.
The change of heart was prompted by fears that the original £50M paper permit system, first favoured by Livingstone during his mayoral campaign, would be too difficult to enforce and lead to high rates of evasion.
A source close to TfL told NCE this week that it now backed the scheme first recommended by the independent Road Charging Options for London (ROCOL) committee (NCE 25 November).
'They are now thinking that the electronic scheme envisaged by the ROCOL panel could be done rather more quickly than envisaged, ' said the source. 'The big question is can they get the software right first time. But smaller examples of number plate recognition schemes such as that used by the Corporation of London have been shown to work well.'
To beat ROCOL's target of having a scheme running by summer 2003, TfL must start its consultation immediately rather than, as originally planned, after its overall transport strategy is published at Christmas.
The new timetable kicks off with the consultation paper for key stakeholders next week. TfL will then prepare a prospectus for its transport strategy presented to the public between January and March 2001.
A detailed public consultation will follow in summer 2001, although it is not yet clear whether TfL plans to hold a public inquiry.
The charging scheme is expected to be run by the public sector, as TfL believes that a private finance deal would take too long to set up. It is likely TfL will manage the project itself rather than seek private sector help.
The TfL source said: 'One overall contract would be quicker in principle but TfL favours separate contracts because it will allow them to be more hands-on to make sure the scheme is delivered to time.'
But Livingstone's proposals and timetable will also hinge on TfL achieving a dramatic improvement in public transport in the capital. At the core of this is raising the standard of London's bus services through better enforcement of bus lanes and possibly lower fares.
The timetable could also be thrown by any possible legal challenge to the proposals.
London First's head of transport policy Irving Yass warned: 'TfL is in danger of squeezing the consultation period so much that it runs the risk of a judicial review. There is a particular worry that Westminster City Council will bring one. They have been very hostile to the plans up to now.'
The road charging options for London report is available on tel: (0870) 600 5522.