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Money gets you moving

Work starts on the Birmingham Northern Relief Road later this year. When it opens in 2002 it is likely to be the only motorway in Britain where motorists have to pay cash tolls. Andrew Bolton reports.

Later this year one of Britain's biggest ever road projects is due to start on site. When the £400M Birmingham Northern Relief Road finally gets under way it will be the biggest road project since the M40 extension. It will also be Britain's first tolled motorway.

Originally conceived in the early 1970s, the project is intended to relieve the most heavily congested section of the M6 running for 43km between junctions 4 and 11. At the moment long distance traffic from the M5 and the south west converges with local traffic and vehicles travelling from the south east via the M40 and M1 north of Birmingham city centre.

During peak times, traffic is so heavy that it often grinds to a halt. Even before the M40 was completed in the early 1990s, congestion on the M6 had reached nightmare proportions.

By 1986 the Department of Transport had unveiled plans for a publicly funded project.

These were later abandoned, when the Conservative government decided to push for a privately financed project in 1989.

At the time, privately financed infrastructure was a relatively new concept for the UK and the Government was keen to see how much risk it could offload onto private design build finance and operate consortia.

When the DTp awarded Midland Expressway the concession for the project in 1990, it was seen as a ground breaking private infrastructure job. DTp's experiment with toll concessions typified early attempts by the Government to shift all risk onto concession companies.

As a result, MEL had to pay to take the project through a three year planning enquiry and take the risk that the inspector would reject the project. It also had to carry the cost of fighting appeals against the Government's 1997 decision to give the project the go-ahead.

As it was, environmentalists appealed against the Government's decision to give it the goahead, dragging proceedings out until earlier this year.

Today's scheme is something of an anachronism in terms of privately financed infrastructure. Its birth as a toll scheme came when the Conservatives were for the first time seriously considering the idea of charging for travel on motorways. As such BNRR is to be financed by cash tolls of £2 per car and £4 per heavy goods vehicle.

The Tories had already successfully awarded a toll concession for the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford and in 1989 launched competitions for three more toll financed projects - the Second Severn Crossing, BNRR and a Birmingham to Manchester motorway to run parallel to the M6.

The Dartford experiment had confirmed the appetite of contractors and their banks for toll bridges, as these could provide relatively predictable traffic flows. Dartford, and later Second Severn, provided exclusive routes across river estuaries where alternative crossings were a long way upstream.

But there was doubt about the financial viability of longer distance tolled motorways. Many contractors and investors feared motorists would avoid tolls on the new roads by using parallel stretches of existing motorway.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this was one of the reasons why the hugely ambitious Birmingham to Manchester scheme went no further than prequalification stage.

But BNRR did survive. Its backers are convinced that jams on the M6 around Birmingham are so bad that motorists will pay to switch to a congestion-free alternative.

But after the 53 year concession was awarded, Government policy on DBFO roads changed as the Highways Agency moved away from direct tolling. This was done partly for political reasons and partly because contractors felt it was too difficult to predict traffic levels - and, by extension, toll revenues.

As a result they preferred publicly funded projects, as this was considered less risky. The Agency has also stepped back from asking DBFO concessionaires to take full planning risk; doubtless under pressure from contractors and bankers, nervous about the uncertainties of pushing schemes through planning enquiries.

When complete at the end of 2003, BNRR will probably remain the only cash tolled motorway in the country. By then the Government may well have bitten the bullet and introduced electronic tolling instead.

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