Friday, 2 November 2012

Transport for London proposes tolling existing tunnel to pay for new one

East of the city of London there is a distinct dearth of road crossings of the Thames, which shows in the severe congestion experienced on them all.  Between Tower Bridge and the North Sea, there are only three road crossings.  The Rotherhithe Tunnel is a 104 year old route only suitable for light vehicles.  At the other end is the Dartford Crossing, which has tolls and is soon to have that toll system converted to electronic free flow technology to reduce the bottleneck at this spot.  Options to expand capacity at the Dartford Crossing are currently being investigated, but closer to London it is a matter for the Mayor of London and Transport for London.  The previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone advocated a now defunct bridge called the Thames Gateway Bridge, which would have been tolled.  This was stopped by the current Mayor Boris Johnson, who is now pursuing an alternative option - called the Silvertown Tunnel.

Transport for London has released its latest round of consultation on new east London river crossings this week, and has now included more details on the preferred options.  I'll largely ignore the proposal for a new vehicular ferry service, as it is laughably absurd to think that with the chronic demand for cross-river road capacity between Tower Bridge and the Thames Estuary that a small vehicle ferry could ever deliver more than a minor increase in capacity.

The more seriously useful proposal is called the Silvertown Tunnel, which is proposed to be built as a toll road, providing a new local link across the river.  

Location of proposed Silvertown local toll tunnel under the Thames
This would be intended to take more local traffic flows from the Blackwall Tunnel, relieving congestion in those tunnels and improving connectivity.  The tolls would help pay for the tunnel, but also enable congestion to be managed at peak times.

However, a more controversial part to the proposal is to toll the nearby pair of tunnels known as the Blackwall Tunnel (singular – though there are two two-lane one way tunnels) on the grounds that:

if the Silvertown Tunnel is built and subject to tolling, the Blackwall Tunnel would also need to be tolled – otherwise there would be serious delays at the Blackwall Tunnel as so much traffic would wish to use it

This curious statement appears to claim that the Blackwall Tunnel will be subject to delays in the future, if a new crossing with tolls is built.  Yet, whilst there is a point to be made about having a tolled crossing near an untolled one (as it means demand for the new crossing is suppressed whilst the untolled option remains), this statement is nonsense as it stands.

The Blackwall Tunnel today is heavily used and frequently severely congested.  This situation is likely to continue.  A new tolled Silvertown Tunnel would provide an alternative for some trips using the Blackwall Tunnel, so will help relieve congestion.  However, usage of it will be less than it would be if the Blackwall Tunnel was not tolled, as some motorists will pay to use the new tunnel only at times when the Blackwall Tunnel is congested.

Yet congestion at the Blackwall Tunnel will not get worse if the Silvertown Tunnel is built and tolled on its own.  Why would it?  This argument simply wont wash.

There are three reasons to toll the Blackwall Tunnel at the same time as the Silvertown Tunnel:

1.  Those who use the Blackwall Tunnel benefit from the shift of some traffic to the Silvertown Tunnel, so should contribute towards the capital costs of the new parallel route.  Otherwise, they will gain the benefit of the tunnel without directly paying for it.
2.   Tolling the Silvertown Tunnel alone will not raise sufficient revenue to pay for it if the Blackwall Tunnel is not tolled.
3.   The regular congestion in the Blackwall Tunnel suggests that pricing could moderate demand and reduce congestion, as well as helping finance new capacity.

However, TfL is strangely not arguing that it is unfair to relieve the Blackwall Tunnel with a new tunnel, but only make those using the new tunnel pay for it.  That's unfortunate.

Tolling the Blackwall Tunnel will be opposed because little is being offered in return

Tolling the Blackwall Tunnel will inevitably be opposed by many, largely because the standard of service offered by this link is not good enough to justify it.  Six lanes of highway traffic to the north and south squeeze in and out of the four lanes of tunnel capacity, with the northbound tunnel having restrictions on vehicle size and speed (it was designed for horse drawn traffic having opened in 1897).  The northern end of the tunnels has traffic signals on what is one of London's few (partial) major orbital arterial highways.

The likelihood is that opposition to tolling the Blackwall Tunnel will be significant, because nobody will believe anything will get better, and because so many believe they pay enough now through fuel tax.  Yet TfL could package this more cleverly and it could be linked to the government’s desire to get more private investment in roads.

Private sector option with tolls could transform this corridor

It could offer to lease (or sell) the Blackwall Tunnels to the private sector allowing the new owner to introduce tolls on a new Silvertown Tunnel and the Blackwall Tunnels on conditions that the concessionaire built the new tunnel, and (if it were an outright sale or a lease of 50 years or more) build a third Blackwall Tunnel to replace the Victorian era northbound tunnel.  TfL believes building the third tunnel is high risk, expensive and difficult, so let the private sector decide how and when this can be delivered within a specific envelope.  The owners or lessees could manage, maintain and improve the major approach roads (the A102 through to the A2 in the south, and the A102 including the A12 through to the A406).  In short, the entire East Cross Route, Blackwall Tunnel, and the southern approaches, with the Silvertown Tunnel, could be owned and operated by a private concessionaire for 50-100 years (or for good if one wanted to be very brave).  The image below depicts the two Blackwall Tunnels in red and green, the East Cross Route and Blackwall Tunnel approach roads in blue, and the proposed Silvertown Tunnel in yellow. 

Blackwall Tunnels, proposed Silvertown Tunnel and approach roads

This is likely to be controversial, as it will mean tolls on the tunnels (it could even allow for tolls on the approach roads, but the new owners would need to meet minimum standards for maintenance and route availability.  If there are fears about excessive tolls (which environmentalists should not oppose), then there could be an initial range of tariffs set in advance, indexed to inflation, with a 100% surcharge permissible for times of heavy congestion. 

All of that ought to please those seeking to manage traffic demand, but the catch would be that tolls couldn't be introduced until the Silvertown Tunnel is built. I'd suggest a timeframe for a 3rd Blackwall Tunnel  (the existing Victorian era northbound one could be relegated to a local link or one way bus tunnel) of say fifteen years after the Silvertown one.  Doing that would enable this corridor to be sustainably and professionally managed, keep the roads maintained, manage demand to capacity.  Beyond that, there would also be the expectation that pricing would manage congestion, so that any new owner would be required to ensure free flow conditions are maintained in the absence of any incidents.

In other words, let this be a showpiece example of how the private sector and tolling might own, operate, improve a piece of strategic arterial highway in London.  This would go further than the management and construction concessions for the M25 and M40, but rather involves new owners having a customer relationship with the users of the facility.

Blackwall and Silvertown Tunnels with East Cross Route in greater London

Yes, there will be opposition from Friends of the Earth and the Green Party, all of whom think road capacity should be frozen permanently, but are suspicious of using pricing to manage demand if it is also used to fund improved highway capacity.  Yet, they ought to reconsider.  A private Blackwall Tunnel, even with new capacity, would be priced, so congestion should be avoided, reducing emissions.  Public transport would be more attractive compared to the priced corridor.  In other words, there are environmental benefits in having a major piece of highway infrastructure priced to ensure traffic flows freely through it, and to not divert taxpayer funds to expand it.   On top of that, if this would demonstrate the value of tolling as a way of managing corridors in London, it may set a precedent for the long term management of highway capacity in the city in a way that the congestion charge could not.

The congestion charge, after all, has worked in central London, but having been tried in west London, is simply not capable, in its current form, of being readily expanded in a way that is acceptable to the public.  Further road pricing in London should be about giving something back to those paying.  Allowing a new Thames Crossing and the existing Blackwall Tunnels to be tolled, both to recover infrastructure costs of new capacity and to manage demand, would show that selective enhancements to the highway network can be sustainably funded and managed, but also that a more commercially oriented approach is capable of delivering a better highway experience for all users.

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