More than 1,000 extra lorries a day used the M6 Toll motorway during a month-long trial where charges were waived, it emerged today.
Figures were revealed ahead of the 10th anniversary of the opening of the first pay-to-drive motorway in Britain.
A deal was struck to let members of the Road Haulage Association use the 27-mile road without paying the £11 charged.
The M6 Toll was designed to be the answer to soaring levels of traffic, infuriating tailbacks and congestion that choked both the environment and the economy.
But 10 years on from the day the first cars travelled along the road, it continues to be branded an expensive failure.
An average of 44,462 a day were using it over the summer. And while that is a 13.3 per cent hike on the year before, it also includes a month of free travel for lorries during July. And it is still less than half the 100,000 a day the road was designed to take.
Much of the increased traffic is thanks to roadworks on the M6.
Seven years ago it was getting around 55,542 vehicles a day. Its busiest day was in May 2004 when it got 66,295.
The free period for lorries resulted in 1,000 extra journeys a day, according to figures released today.
But politicians and transport chiefs say the road is seriously underused and blamed the £5.50 cost for cars and £11 for lorries to travel along it for continued congestion on the M6.
Midland Expressway Ltd, which operates the M6 Toll, declined to comment on the 10-year anniversary, saying it was just ‘business as usual’. However its chief executive Tom Fanning said that the road has never cost the taxpayer a penny and that without it, there would be tens of thousands more cars on the M6 every day.
The £900 million 27-mile road’s story began in 1980, when Margaret Thatcher’s government accepted the need to reduce congestion in the West Midlands.
The M6 motorway had been built to carry 72,000 vehicles today. These days, even with the M6 Toll in operation, it carries around 145,000.
Widening the M6 was ruled out, so a new motorway – dubbed the Birmingham North Relief Road – was decided on instead.
In 1991, under Prime Minister John Major, the government decided it would be built by a private company and become Britain’s first pay-to-drive motorway.
Midland Expressway were awarded the contract for 53 years and the road opened on December 9, 2003 – six weeks early.
The M6 Toll was fully opened on December 14. Back then it cost a car driver £2 to use it. Today it is £5.50. Lorries started off at £10 then dropped within eight months to £6. The price has now crept up to £11.
It connects junction 11A of the M6 between Wolverhampton and Cannock with junction 4 at Coleshill. And yet the same stretch of road that the toll was supposed to alleviate has ended up having hundreds of millions of pounds spent on a scheme to introduce variable speed limits and open the hard shoulder to traffic during peak times.
Earlier this year the road’s owner Macquarie Atlas Roads entered into talks with a consortium of banks about renewing its £1bn-plus of loans. It came as the company’s assets were valued at £1.2bn and its debts were £2.1bn.
Critics say it is now time to seriously consider taking the toll road into public ownership.
Councillor Roger Lawrence, leader of Wolverhampton City Council,: “We ought to look at the costs and benefits of de-tolling the road. The bigger network of toll roads has not happened and it’s time for a proper debate around it.
“It’s still a priority for us to see a new road that would link the M54 up with the M6 Toll. But we need to seriously look at the benefits of buying out the owners.”
Geoff Inskip, chief executive of transport authority Centro, has already called for the toll road to be nationalised. He said: “Ten years on and the M6 Toll is still failing to attract enough vehicles off the M6.
“We believe this is because the price hauliers and motorists are being asked to pay is way too high. As we have said previously, if the M6 Toll cannot be made to work in terms of relieving the M6 then one solution would be to bring it into public ownership.”
South Staffordshire MP Gavin William-son believes it is time to look at the Mr Toll again. He said: “It’s ridiculously expensive to use. As a result it’s massively underused.
“I think after 10 years we need to sit down and look at the whole thing again.”
In July Midland Expressway agreed to an experiment with the Road Haulage Association to let its members use the road for free.
Tom Fanning, chief executive of Midland Expressway, said the question of nationalisation was ‘one for government’.
He said: “It is important to note that the M6 Toll was constructed by the private sector at no risk to the taxpayer. Without private investment, the M6 Toll would not otherwise exist and its customers would instead be adding to the existing congestion on the M6 motorway.”Subscribe to our Newsletter