In an email being sent out to the 1.7 million people who signed an internet petition against road pricing set up on the No 10 website Tony Blair claims that public transport alone cannot make up for the 15% predicted increase in travel by 2015. He also claims that at a cost of £30 million per mile, adding new motorways would divert funds from areas such as education and health.
Instead "a national scheme ... could cut congestion significantly through small changes in our overall travel patterns." "Congestion", writes Mr Blair, "is bad. ... It affects people's quality of life. And it is bad for the environment."
Read the full email here
The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, who have both made pledges to reduce the environmental damage caused by travel, criticised the proposal.
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat shadow transport secretary, released a statement accusing Tony Blair of doing nothing about the worsening congestion the UK has faced since Labour came to power in 1997.
He disagreed that the tax should be in addition to existing taxes, believing instead that "taxes need to be greener and fairer, but not higher." He did not say where this money should be taken from. Public finances remain in deficit despite record investment.
Chris Grayling, the shadow transport sectary, said that road polls are a stealth tax and should be treated with skepticism.
The Scottish Tory party went further, launching their own website campaigning against road tolls. Leader Annabel Goldie claimed the taxes would hit the poorest hardest and said: "The Scottish Conservatives want roads for people whose taxes have already paid for them." She did not mention the environmental impact of car travel and congestion.
Tony Blair's email strikes a conciliatory tone stating that the road tolling process is still in discussion. However the politics of the matter may already be settled.
The Department of Transport has established a £1.4 billion fund for investment in local transport projects such as tram lines, hundreds of miles of bus lanes and a considerable improvement in rail capacity and frequency.
At least ten councils are planning to bid in July for a share of the fund. The DfT have told them that any bid must include a plan for congestion charging.
The rules clearly state that the cost of motor transport is to rise, claiming that any rebating or offsetting of congestion charging through a discount on other vechile taxes such as fuel duty or vehicle exercise duty "would be inappropriate for local schemes."
The ten areas that are bidding for the fund are Manchester, Birmingham, Durham, Shrewsbury, Reading, Norwich, Bristol and Bath, Cambridge, the East Midlands (Nottingham, Derby and Leicester) and Tyne & Wear. It has been estimated that up to a million motorists would be charged for using their cars.
This allows the government to defuse the national movement against road tolls while tying car use directly to the funding of alternative, less damaging forms of transport in cities where congestion is worst and public transport most effective. It also shifts the focus away from its own road building schemes.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2007