Reasons to favour road tolls

You know, I really don’t mind the SNP all that much. I mean, in the sense that they are better than Labour then I am pleased they won the election. And I think that, on the whole, they have done a very competent job in charge.

But what have they done since gaining power? ASwaS notes:

The first Act of the SNP Government was to abolish tolls in and out of Fife. The second Act has been to remove university fees. As a St Andrews graduate I feel like I am in a privileged subset of the population.

So there have been two acts, both of which I oppose. This is a bit paradoxical because I am a student living in Fife. Received wisdom has it that I’m supposed to be in favour of these policies. But only the myopic think this. People see the headlines — “free this” and “free that” — without thinking about the full consequences. The policies are unashamedly populist, but unsustainable. This makes the SNP demagogues in my book.

Both of these policies are completely counter productive to a Fife-based student. I have already covered free university education before, so I won’t bore you again. But I have been meaning to write about road tolls for a long while now. So here is why road tolls should not be scrapped.

Roads are a scarce resource. There are only so many roads that can be built with the resources we have (not least space). And it is well known that no matter how many roads you build, drivers will literally be queuing up to use them.

Roads are a particularly scarce resource if you are trying to leave Fife (and who would blame you?). Geographically isolated, Fife is a peninsula. The River Tay lies to the north, the North Sea to the east, and the Firth of Forth is on the south. On the west, the Ochil Hills act as fourth barrier to entering Fife. It is almost as though the Flying Spaghetti Monster was trying to tell us something about Fife.

Anyway, the point is that if you want to travel to Edinburgh from Fife by road you don’t have many options. Basically you can cross the ageing Forth Road Bridge and deal with some horrendous traffic jams. Or you can spend even more time (and use up more petrol) going via Kincardine.

So roads out of Fife are a very scarce resource. When a resource is scarce it has to be rationed somehow. Clearly, no everyone who would like to use the Forth Road Bridge, or indeed any road, would be able to use it because there simply isn’t enough of it to go around. There needs to be some way of finding out who needs to use the road the most.

There are two ways to do it. One way is to make people spend time. This is the way most roads work, and of course the Forth Road Bridge has recently become one of those roads. The other way is to make people spend money. Evil, evil money. Yes? No.

Evan Davis has explained why queuing does a really bad job at rationing a scarce resource. When you make people queue, you are making everyone spend a lot of time. Time is the scarcest resource of them all. You can’t bring back the past, and you can’t transfer your spare time to someone else who doesn’t have enough time. Once time is spent, it’s gone forever.

If, on the other hand, you use money, it might still be costly to you as a person. But at least the money doesn’t just disappear. It has simply changed hands. The money can be re-spent again. Now, society is better off than it would have been had everyone been made to queue.

So to use the Forth Road Bridge as an example, the government could choose to whack up the price of crossing. This money could then be used to build more hospitals, or even — shock horror — a second Forth road bridge or tunnel. Or they could use it to reduce taxes.

Instead, the SNP have chosen to make not only drivers crossing the bridge, but also society as a whole, pay through the nose just so that they can say that they have removed road tolls. It’s a pretty pyrrhic victory if you ask me.

A couple of months back Calum Cashley was sceptical that the removal of the tolls would lead to greater congestion. His argument was that as the charge was only £1, removing it would not make crossing the bridge much cheaper in the eyes of many. But if anything, this is an argument that the charge was not high enough in the first place!

Instead, the SNP have taken it in the opposite direction. Common sense dictates that it would increase congestion. And evidence suggests that it has — by half an hour every morning. The rush hour is now a rush hour and a half.

The situation starts to look even worse when you consider the environmental impact of this situation. If road tolls were in use then think of the carbon emissions that would be cut. Instead, the SNP have removed the one toll road left, meaning that even more drivers are just standing still on the road with their engines running and emitting carbon dioxide. And the SNP are supposed to be a green party!

So road tolls make sense from an economic and environmental point of view. Does that mean we should dive head first into a full-on road charging scheme? Possibly not.

I seem to remember that when Evan Davis wrote that post, it was on the back of a debate about the possibility of people being charged to use roads by the mile (or something similar). This involves having a little box in your car that enables you to be tracked wherever you go. It might be economically efficient, but there is a serious problem with civil liberties there.

Also, it is perhaps worth pointing out that queuing is probably not always the worse option. Even though people grumble about NHS waiting lists, it seems preferable to a charge-based system where doctors could make up your illnesses in order to extract more money from you.

Nevertheless, the principle of road charging (if not the method as it currently stands) is perfectly sound. The tollbooth system on the Forth Road Bridge did not suffer from this civil liberties issue, so there was no good reason to abolish them. It was all the more farcical when the Scottish Government decided to pull them down at a cost of £2m, when they had only just been erected at a cost of £4m!


  1. I’m yet to meet anyone who thinks that abolishing the Forth tolls is a good idea. And the works required are causing havoc in South Queensferry (where I work) which is annoying a lot of people yet further.