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Government told to get behind WMCA in congestion-busting M6 Toll plan

Government told to get behind WMCA in congestion-busting M6 Toll plan

🕔20.Apr 2016

The Government has been urged to give new West Midlands Combined Authority powers to allow motorists to use the M6 Toll without paying when traffic is gridlocked on the motorway network around Birmingham.

The idea was raised in the House of Commons by Julian Knight, the MP for Solihull.

Mr Knight secured a debate into an incident on February 4 when the M6 was closed for 24 hours between junctions six and seven following a fatal crash, leaving vehicles stranded for hours.

While Highways England has the power to invoke Operation Freeway, free use of the M6 Toll during a major traffic incident, the agency decided not to do so.

The closure is estimated to have cost the West Midlands economy £40 million in products not reaching their destination and people not turning up for work, Mr Knight claimed.

He said it was wrong to allow “unaccountable” civil servants to decide when the toll motorway should be opened to all traffic and he urged ministers to consider allowing WMCA to take such a decision.

A public hearing into the February 4 incident called by West Midlands Police Commissioner David Jamieson concluded that all of the public agencies – police, Highways England and councils – must work together more closely to make sure motorways are opened more quickly after serious accidents.

Describing February 4 as “a day that will live in infamy for West Midlands motorists”, Mr Knight called for fundamental reform of the way the M6 Toll operates.

He suggested the combined authority could pay an annual fee to buy a number of days in the year when toll road charges could be waived due to congestion and gridlock on other motorways. Mr Knight said:

During times of crisis, when we need a relief road the most, the contingency plans in place might have been deliberately designed to never be used. To open the toll to general traffic costs £300,000, an astonishing sum that represents, at best, a generous estimate of the cost of a day’s toll take—although the toll waiver might not even be needed for a full day, but just for a few short hours.

Worse, the final decision to implement the plan, dubbed Operation Freeway, rests with civil servants, who are not accountable to local residents and cannot be fairly expected to make snap decisions about such huge sums of taxpayers’ money.

We could move towards a system in which the toll road is free to use during periods of gridlock, with an annual fee paid to the operator to secure that service and access, rather than having a one-off, never-generated fee. Alternatively, an annual fee could purchase an allotment of days of access—five days during the year, for example.

The new West Midlands combined authority is the ideal institution to make such a decision.

Mr Knight said the Government had “a wonderful opportunity” to demonstrate the strengths of devolution and WMCA could provide the means to place the M6 Toll under democratic control. He added:

Too many voters see the WMCA as just another layer of bureaucracy; they do not yet appreciate the important role it can play in promoting regional growth. If they see action on the M6 toll to ease congestion in the area, they would see a real benefit of the WMCA.

Junior Transport Minister Andrew Jones told MPs he was keen to explore what could be done to prevent a repeat of motorway closures bringing gridlock to the system.

He described Operation Freeway as a “clumsy instrument” that had never been used. The deciding factor was whether the motorway would have to be closed for days rather than hours.

Highways England took the decision not to suspend the toll because the incident did not meet the criteria for activation: it was not seen to be an extreme event impacting the carriageway over and above what is associated with a serious road traffic collision.

Mr Jones added:

The incident on 4 February was not just a personal tragedy for the family who lost a loved one; it also highlighted the lack of resilience and capacity in the network around Birmingham and the fact that we have to think about all elements of that capacity, including the M6 toll road, as we plan both for resilience and for extra growth.

I am happy to have such conversations,​which have already begun, but we need to build on them. I am happy to work with everyone locally to make that happen.

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