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The benefits of capital investment projects...

The other day I was sat in a queue at the Dartford river crossing, about two miles from the toll booths, wondering if I was ever going to reach my destination. It had to be a pretty terrible accident to have caused such a delay, I thought. Or perhaps some major repair on one of the tunnels. Or maybe road works on the other side of the river. Regardless, it was hugely frustrating to be sat there, inching forward, burning fuel at £1.36 a litre. An hour and a quarter later I reached the toll booth, only to find that the reason for the hold up was the toll booths themselves. The volume of traffic is simply more than the booths can handle.

Such delays, I gather, have become routine. Just ask any of the 150,000 drivers who use the crossing each day. Surely that can't be good for UK industry. How much time is lost just sitting in traffic queues? Fortunately, our visionary politicians have an answer. If they significantly increase the tolls for a few years, that should raise enough money to finance a new crossing. Now I'm just a simple lass, but I have an alternative idea. Just get rid of the toll booths, and the congestion problem will go away.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. A new crossing would represent a major capital investment project, and if the contracts to construct it go to UK companies then that would play a key role in stimulating the economy at a time when it seems to be teetering on the brink. At the same time, by raising the tolls they've essentially covered the cost of the project, and effectively stimulated consumer spending at the same time. Would we be happy to balance short term hardship for longer term gain? Maybe we would - especially if we had guarantees that the tolls wouldn't be ongoing, instead being scrapped the minute the project costs are covered.

Construction of the QE2 bridge at Dartford, which carries traffic south across the river, cost around £200m. At current traffic volumes, the tolls at the crossing probably generate in the region of £225k per day, or £80m per year. And I bet that's a conservative number. With a small rise tolls, the cost of the whole project to build another tunnel further up river could conceivably be covered in just a couple of years. No private finance needed.

But there might be a manufacturing solution, too, and it comes from average speed cameras. The Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology on which these cameras rely was invented in Britain. These cameras are designed to catch you at high speed, so presumably if used in a toll gathering situation they wouldn't slow traffic flow down. How much would a camera system to replace the toll booths at Dartford cost?

At this time of cuts and austerity, there is precious little government money floating around for major projects - the sorts of projects that in days gone by would have stimulated the economy and injected some much needed feel-good factor. But manufacturing and construction are the two star performers of the economic recovery - without them the picture would be stark indeed. You would think, then, that government would be doing all it could to help these sectors to kick on.

Becky Silverton, 14 June 2011

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