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30 November 2014, 01:00
From today (Sunday 30th November) drivers will no longer have to stop at toll booths to pay to use the Dartford Crossing on the M25.
It is hoped the online pre-pay or pay-after system should ease congestion, but the daily charge for cars is going up to £2.50, with increases also being introduced for light and heavy goods vehicles.
It is likely that it will be spring 2015 before the full benefits of the new system will be felt as there will be roadworks for a time while the toll booths are removed.
At present drivers pay at 27 booths on the Kent side of the crossing after they have either gone over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, which takes traffic from north to south, or before they go through the Dartford Tunnel which operates for traffic going from south to north.
From 6am, cash payments will be scrapped in favour of online, phone or post payments, with the car charge reduced from £2.50 to £1.67 if paid using a pre-pay Dart Charge account.
So far more than 100,000 vehicles are covered by people and organisations setting up these accounts, with 52 foreign countries, including New Zealand registering for accounts.
Charging hours are between 6am and 10pm daily. It will still be free to use the crossing outside these hours.
Those not pre-paying will have until midnight the following day after making a crossing to pay. The penalty for not doing so will be £70, reduced to £35 if payment is made within 14 days but rising to £105 if payment is not received within 28 days.
The Highways Agency is hoping for a minimum of congestion at the start of the new system. An agency spokesman said: "We're starting at 6am on a Sunday when traffic will be comparatively light and there will be plenty of signs up to tell people about the new arrangement.
"Monday morning will be more of a test but we are trying to do everything we can to let people know about the changes.''
RAC Foundation director Professor Stephen Glaister said: "The crossing is the motorway bottleneck of Europe and routinely sees traffic volumes way above the maximum design capacity.
"We welcome the changes but they are not coming cheap. Charges are being hiked and car drivers will pay a quarter more for the privilege of faster journeys
"At the same time operating costs will be about three times what they were when the booths were there. However the benefits in quicker journeys are predicted to be huge.''
He went on: "The relief might be short lived though. Officials predict motorway traffic in the south east of England will rise by about 25% in the next decade.
"Already ministers are considering where a third Lower Thames crossing should go to ease the growing pressure on the existing bridge and tunnel. At the very least the extra money raised from higher tolls should go towards building it.''
If the original plan for tolls at the crossing had been carried through, motorists would no longer be paying.
Under the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act of 1988, toll paying should have ceased when the crossing had been paid for - a date deemed as March 31 2002.
But charges have been kept on under a separate year-2000 Transport Act with the funds raised going to the Treasury where they are ring-fenced for transport purposes.