The transport secretary has launched a debate on a national system of road
pricing for cars. Alistair Darling said on Sunday that the option of a satellite
tracking system charging varying rates per mile could be used to cut congestion.

The levy would be in lieu of reduced fuel and road tax bills and "fairer" because
it would be more closely linked to the level of vehicle use and busy times.

Under the proposals for the world's first national road charging scheme, Britain's
32 million vehicles would be fitted with a black box that would track all journeys
via a satellite system. Charges could range from 2p a mile on rural roads to £1.34
a mile for peak time journeys on the country's busiest routes.

Rush hour commuters, school run parents and motorway users would pay hundreds
of pounds more a year than rural motorists who travel on near-empty roads at
off-peak times.

Scotland's most expensive roads would include the M8, the A720 Edinburgh bypass,
the M74 in Lanarkshire and the A90 over the Forth Road Bridge.

Darling said the government wants to build a political consensus on the best
way to beat the gridlock predicted in the next two decades. He announced that
pilot "pay-as-you-drive" projects would be established in the next
five years, as more new cars are fitted with tracking devices.

"We know that over the next 20 to 30 years we are likely to face increasing
congestion as people become better off, they will be driving more, there will
be more goods moved around," he said.

"So in addition to putting money into public transport, we have got to
ask ourselves 'could we manage our road network better?'

"'Could we get more capacity out of it?' Because everybody knows you
simply cannot try and build your way out of the problem. It would be wrong
financially and it would be wrong environmentally. We are looking at the feasibility.

"I believe that in this parliament we have got to decide whether or not
road pricing is feasible, whether it is the right thing to do. Because if we
don't do anything we will face gridlock and that will be bad for everyone."

Some motorists' groups have reacted angrily to the suggestion, which they
argue was not discussed during the general election campaign, despite a manifesto
promise.

Environmental groups have warned that shifting money away from fuel duty would
take away the incentive for people to use green vehicles.

But RAC Foundation spokeswoman Sue Nicholson said the plan could help counter
a projected 45% growth in congestion problems by 2030.

"Providing this tax was substitutional to fuel tax and road tax and provided
we had some other guarantees then I think, for a lot of people, this would
be a tempting option," she said.

Mr Darling will set out his thinking in a speech to the Social Market Foundation
on Thursday.

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