Thursday 9th December 2004 was the first anniversary of the opening of the M6 Toll, formerly known as the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, Britain’s first private toll motorway.

The M6 Toll was built to provide an alternative to the existing M6 through the West Midlands conurbation. At the 1994-95 Public Inquiry the concessionaires Midland Expressway Ltd (MEL) said that the new road would attract 75,000 vehicles a day from the busy M6.

With large sections of the M6 closed during last summer for essential roadworks MEL should have been doing a roaring trade but they just haven’t been able to hold on to that traffic. After a peak of 71,761 vehicles was reached on 23rd July 2004, average traffic levels on the M6 Toll fell to below 50,000 vehicles a day by October.

Not working
What's more, the fall in traffic volume on the M6 is not being matched by the volume of traffic using the M6 Toll. Some of the traffic from the M6 Toll is returning to the West Midlands via the M6-M1 link, the A50, through Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Could the M6 Toll in fact be inducing new traffic onto the network, increasing congestion on the M6 to the north and the M6 and M42 to the south?

The M6 Toll isn't working; it cannot attract enough traffic from the M6. Faced with lower than expected traffic numbers, MEL are now desperate to secure traffic-generating out-of-town developments on greenbelt and greenfield sites along the M6 Toll corridor. Hey, if we can't sell it as a congestion-buster we can re-brand it as a growth corridor! This is a simplistic development strategy which will undermine the Regional Spatial Strategies' main aim of regenerating our major urban areas. The local planning authorities should stand firm and resist MEL's advances.

West Midlands Friends of the Earth is also concerned that one year on we still have not seen the highly secretive concession agreement drawn up between the government and MEL in the early 90s. While MEL claim that they have borne the full costs of the road it has since emerged that they received £147 million in kind from the government in the delivery of the project. The full extent of the concession agreement, along with the financial records for the M6 Toll, needs to undergo proper scrutiny in the public domain. The Freedom of Information Act could help here, however 'commercial confidentiality' could thwart any initiatives in that direction.

So, on the first anniversary of the opening of the M6 Toll we are no closer to penetrating the fog of commercial confidentiality surrounding the project. Meanwhile, the M6 Toll should serve as a cautionary tale for the Welsh Assembly, which announced plans for a toll motorway to relieve the M4 in Gwent two days after the M6 Toll's first anniversary. We have also been campaigning hard against the proposed M6 expressway from Cannock, Staffs, to Knutsford, Cheshire.

The government is keen on the idea of pay-as-you-go motoring and FoE, Transport 2000 and CPRE all gave evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee's investigation into charging regimes. A report from the committee is expected in the Spring, along with the Highways Agency's annual analysis of the performance of the M6 toll. We'll keep you posted.