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Tuesday 25 September 2007

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

Road Pricing - The UK Gummint are all for it while the tech heads point out the madness.

OK for starters I wouldn't trust Ruth Kelly to make a rational, sensible, data based decision if her life depended on it. That's a rant for another day though and probably has a lot to do with how I don't have any time at all for people who choose to listen to the little voices in their heads rather than using their brains.

She is right about the general point - road pricing or at least usage related charging has to happen in order to ration access to congested road resources. My problem with the current buzz about this is that everyone seems to be talking about technological solutions (Mandatory GPS and online comm systems for all vehicles, massive Gummint databases, location awareness systems on a grand scale, blah) that don't really exist today and would probably cost a fortune (say GBP 500-1000 per vehicle for something close to 30 million vehicles ie GBP 15-30 billion just to put the kit in the cars, possibly as much again to run given the NHS as an example of a Gummint sponsored mega IT project). Roads are expensive but GBP 60billion would still buy about 3000 miles of Grade A motorway which would solve a lot of congestion right there. And don't forget the technically trivial countermeasures outlined in the El'Reg article - implementing this is going to create an instant underground market in knobbling the tracking systems. Yeah - more crimes!

Anyway my point about all this is not that road usage pricing is a bad thing, as I said I absolutely believe it is a good thing to some extent and it is inevitable unless something else intervenes (like the sudden evaporation of all out oil reserves). The thing that makes me see red in this debate is that there is a technologically simple alternative that is known to work and that would be simple to implement: Jack up the price of fuel by an amount that produces the required effect. If this effect wears off then jack it up again, wash, rinse, repeat.... There are avoidance strategies for users (fuel smuggling in Armagh springs to mind) but the opportunities for that are limited and fuel's bulk nature makes smuggling it a hard crime to scale up economically in any meaningful way without collusion. All in all the implementation costs are close to zero as the fuel excise infrastructure is already in place and all that has to be done is to set new rates and analyze the effects.

This way you avoid a one off GBP 30bn bill that road users in the UK would have to pay and you insure yourself against being repeatedly shafted by some IT Consulting sharks by not needing them in the first place.

Getting back to Ruth Kelly - she could do with going back to being Education secretary in the hope that some learning might rub off on her. The GBP 1.30 per mile figure she quotes doesn't make a lot of sense. If it's part of a nationwide solution then it works out to a total of around GBP 390bn per annum (30 mil cars x 10k miles per annum x GBP1.3 per mile). Given that the
UK's GDP is only about a Trillion Sterling or so any nationwide road pricing scheme that charged rates like those would bankrupt the country post haste.

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