Published: 14:21, 17 May 2021
| Updated: 16:40, 17 May 2021
A new joint operator of the Dart Charge, the payment system for journeys across the Dartford Crossing, has been selected.
French company emovis, which currently operates online toll collections for the busy thoroughfare between Kent and Essex, will resume its role.
In a deal worth up to a combined £270million over 10-and-a-half years, it will share responsibilities for the "second generation" charging service with American-based payments processor Conduent.
Vehicle identification, account management, payment processing and customer services at the Crossing will all now be handled by the US firm.
Meanwhile, the issuing and handling of penalty charge notices will remain under the remit of emovis.
The contract for non-UK enforcement services is set to be awarded in March next year following a competitive tender process.
The current free-flowing charging was brought in for the first time in 2014 when the toll booths were scrapped.
Highways England says this move has helped reduce congestion caused by drivers having to stop at the barrier to pay and has given road users more choice about how and when they pay.
Currently motorists can pay the charge online, by phone and at various retail outlets, prior to or up to the day after using the Crossing.
Malcolm Dare, executive director of commercial and procurement at Highways England, said: “We are delighted to announce the awards of the first two contracts for the second generation of free flow charging at Dartford Crossing.
"The removal of the payment booths and introduction of free-flow charging at Dartford in 2014 not only helped to reduce congestion for the growing number of people using the crossing, it also provided much more flexibility for people to pay and we’re extremely excited to be working alongside Conduent and emovis as we move into the next phase of free flow charging at Dartford.”
Mark Brewer, group president of transportation solutions at Conduent, said: “This award demonstrates our commitment to our global strategy for growth while continuing to provide effective, end-to-end solutions for our clients.
"Building on our strong UK and European presence and capabilities, we are dedicated to delivering a successful programme for Highways England and its customers.”
Highways England says there are no current plans to increase the charge.
The increase in fees was last publicly consulted upon in 2011 and the government then decided to raise the charge level in two stages – once in October 2012 and again after the toll booths were scrapped in November 2014.
Dartford residents are eligible for a discount and the lowest rate is available for those who set up an account to pay.
Christian Barrientos, chief executive officer of emovis, commented: “The awarding of this contract to emovis reflects the administration’s confidence in our expert ability to develop robust solutions designed with the end user in mind.
"Ensuring a high quality and standard of service for our clients and their customers, underpinned by our expert operational teams.
"We are pleased to have been selected to keep managing the scheme for Dartford Crossing, a vital component for the success of every free flow charging operation. We are also delighted to continue our longstanding relationship with Highways England.”
But the charge is not without its critics and many motorists have called for it to be scrapped altogether – in line with an original pledge by the government once the debt for the construction of the bridge was repaid nearly 20 years ago.
The Crossing raked in more than £200m in income last year, of which a third was generated from fines.
Contributions are allocated to Department for Transport coffers and pumped back into road infrastructure projects.
But the local council, residents and environmental campaigners have all called for more of the cash to be set aside for much needed congestion improvements locally.
Motorists have hit out at its past history of technical faults and glitches which included a decision to automatically close "inactive accounts".
Highways England said users were clearly warned when they sign up and the details are fully set out in its terms and conditions.
It further explained it was unable to reopen automatically closed accounts or automatically refund account-holders because it has to delete personal data to comply with data protection rules.
The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge is 812 metres long, cost £120m to build and was opened 30 years ago.
Together with the Tunnels it forms a critical part of the road network with an average daily use of more than 130,000 vehicles.
It spans the River Thames between Dartford and Thurrock and connects the M25 either side to create a complete orbital loop around London.