Tech-based solutions demonstrate the future of UK roads funding

It may have slipped under your radar that the finalists for the 2017 Wolfson Economics Prize – the world’s second-biggest economics prize after Nobel’s version – were announced two weeks ago.

Why has this got anything to do with our industry? Because 2017’s prize question is: ‘How can we pay for better, safer, more reliable roads in a way that is fair to road users and good for the economy and the environment?’

Questions around roads funding are always relevant to those working in the infrastructure sector, so the proposed ideas all make interesting reading.

Leading the way ahead

All of the five shortlisted finalists’ solutions would require some technological innovation to make them reality, and all approach the problem in different ways.

To summarise, the ideas are:

  • T-forward: A new platform that would provide back-end payment mechanics and customer accounting that existing road-charging schemes (eg London’s congestion charge) and future telematics-based ones can link into, creating a stepped approach that different stakeholders can use in parallel.
  • Road Miles: All UK drivers would be given 3,000 free miles a year for one vehicle registered in their name, with fuel duty reduced and vehicle excise duty revised to support the transition to cleaner vehicles. After 3,000 miles, registered vehicle owners would be charged a small mileage rate, with concessions for those in remote rural areas and further incentives for switching to greener vehicles. A Road Miles Lottery would be held to help fund pothole repairs, while an auction would allow companies to bid for miles that they could offer to customers via promotions – and companies could bid for naming rights on roads to raise further cash.
  • Pricing for Prosperity: A new form of flexible charging that would make charges and journey times clear in advance, with a refund to drivers if journeys take longer than expected. A smartphone app would be used to deliver the information and calculate journey costs. Charges would be allocated into the appropriate pot so that money is spent where it is earned.
  • Customer-led Demand Management: A voluntary switch to road pricing in exchange for a cut in fuel duty, so that road users who decide to take part can save money by avoiding peak congestion times. Again, this solution would use a new digital platform to allow customers to make smarter travel choices, and integrate with electric vehicles as they become more commonplace.
  • A Mileage-based Road Tax: Scrap vehicle excise duty and fuel duty, and replace them with a fairer system that charges drivers based on the distance they drive each year and the type of vehicle they own, with payments collected through car insurance companies. Charges would be split between local authorities based on the proportion of travel on their roads, and HGVs could get a discount for using the strategic road network rather than local roads, for example.

Tech-able roads

All of these proposals require greater technological integration with the road system, with many demanding more sophisticated use of telematics systems to monitor drivers’ routes and mileage. They also all take into account the development of vehicle technology, whether that be electric vehicles or autonomous vehicles.

As the UK’s roads become ever-more congested and road funding becomes a trickier problem to solve, inventive technology-based solutions such as these may need to be taken more seriously by the government.

It certainly provides food for thought.