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Dartford Crossing: The traffic nightmare we shouldn’t still be paying for after all these years

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Original article from Kent Live

It may surprise you to learn that the Dartford Crossing in its current state has now existed for almost 30 years.

However, since the QEII bridge was completed in 1991, the Thames crossing has become somewhat infamous.

It seems that almost every day a major incident, phantom jam with no clear cause, or perhaps even just heavy winds, manage to leave the Dartford Crossing totally paralysed.

The worst part of all of this is that the crossing, for all its flaws, should be free to use by now – but we're still paying for it.

Read more: 15 of the biggest mistakes in Kent's history – from the DartCharge to Manston Airport

In fact, the Dart Charge should have been a thing of the past long before the branding of 'Dart Charge' came into existence, with the toll originally promised to be abolished in 2003,

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Drivers are still being charged every time they pass between Kent and Essex, and if they miss the Dart Charge, they risk being fined.

Online petitions have tried and failed to reverse the decision, with the most recent campaign a couple of years ago failing to quite reach Parliament, despite attracting in excess of 27,000 signatures.

So what is the issue?

It's easy to forget that the crossing was once even worse than it is now – with toll booths forcing every car to a standstill regardless of how busy the roads were.

The booths were scrapped in 2014 – replaced by an online charge that now costs £2.00 if you have an account with the crossing, or £2.50 without one.

The Dartford Crossing's old toll booths – now a thing of the past

Worse still – the removal of toll booths means it's possible to forget to pay once you're clear of the crossing, landing you a base £70 fine, that can rise to £105 if unpaid, or slashed to a still-painful £35 if paid within 14 days.

Regardless, the toll is steep for any regular users – with Dartford and Thurrock residents the only ones able to get a substantial discount at £20 a year or £10 per 50 crossings.

This discount would be great for any regular users – but the extremely limited area in which you're allowed to get the discount makes it a non-option for the vast majority of people using the crossing.

Even with the convenience of an automated charge pulling straight out of a Dart Charge account without the need for tolls, the bridge and tunnels are infamous for traffic jams.

The crossing is notorious for extreme traffic jams.

Any regular readers of KentLive will be aware just how often these happen – especially on Fridays, which have now become renowned for being the worst day of the week to try to go between Kent and Essex.

There are alternatives – but the free Blackwall tunnel in Greenwich isn't much better traffic-wise, and is far further out of the way for anyone simply trying to get from A to B without a huge detour.

The real reason the bridge is so notorious and the tolls so hated isn't the chronic traffic jams, though – it lies in a trail of broken promises and shifting justifications for a toll that's been in place almost 20 years longer than it should have been.

What was promised – and what happened?

Under the original agreement when the bridge was built, tolling was supposed to stop once it had paid for itself – a timeframe which expired almost 20 years ago.

In February 1999, the Blair government announced the Dartford Crossing would be free of toll charges by the end of 2003.

Motoring organisations – and drivers themselves – welcomed the news.

But in 2001, it was revealed that the government had backtracked out of the initial agreement, and there was outrage from all angles.

The Dartford Crossing remains infamous to this day

The powers to introduce a charge were agreed by Parliament in the Transport Act 2000, and the charge was introduced in 2003 following a consultation exercise.

At the time, the AA Motoring Trust told the BBC the government had broken its promise to scrap the toll.

The trust said the then government pledged to parliament and the AA that the fee would cease when the cost of the crossing had been paid for and a maintenance fund accumulated.

Paul Watters, from the trust, said: "It is no wonder motorists don't trust the way they are taxed and treated by governments.

"The 150,000 drivers who use the Dartford Crossing each day have a right to be outraged that they will still have to pay."

The trust said money raised from the tolls would not necessarily go to local transport improvements.

It said funds would be used to pay for the 10 years transport plan, which means it could be used for schemes across the country.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "Monies raised will only be spent on transport improvements, which will affect motorists."

And in a response to a Freedom of Information Request regarding the continuation of tolls in 2009, the Department for Transport said: "The original intention was to remove tolls when the costs of the Bridge had been recovered.

"However, traffic levels have risen far faster than projected and an earlier study has indicated that removal of toll charges would increase traffic levels by 17 per cent on 2003 levels."

Stationary traffic is a common occurrence, even with the toll supposedly keeping more traffic away from the bridge & tunnels

Despite the fact over a decade has passed since the news broke, commuters and public figures alike have remained appalled that the tolls are still in place.

AA president Edmund King told the Evening Standard in 2012: "Long-distance travellers from the UK and Europe, freight, business and regional users have all been sold down the river by successive governments through the unnecessary perpetuation of tolls and lack of future capacity at Dartford.

"Tolling was supposed to pay for the Dartford Bridge and then end, which would have been in 2003. However, it became a nice little earner which raises around £70 million a year."

"Ramping up the tolls when the majority of users have no alternative about the time and place they cross the Thames is simply impractical and a bridge too far in road charging."

He continued: "To keep charges here with the aim of deterring traffic is crazy as the crossing is on one of the most important motorways in Europe, keeping traffic away from London and communities in south east England."

Who knows if the bridge will ever be able to solve it's nightmare traffic jams, or ever get rid of that toll supposedly kept around to stop traffic from being even worse than it already is.

Original Article