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Bridges of sighs
publication date: Feb 7, 2017
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
Arguments about paying to cross Britain's biggest road bridges have raged for 50 yeaers - and nowhere more so than in the Western Group region.
With just over a month to go for submissions to be lodged on the future of the tolls, here is the story so far.
The controversy began in September 1966, when the new Severn Bridge opened to M4 motorway traffic on payment in either direction of 2s 6d (12½p) though motorcycles paid only 1s 0d (5p) - and were eventually exempted.
In 1990 Severn River Crossing PLC (“SRC”) successfully tendered to take over its operation - and build and operate a second bridge. It shouldered outstanding debt of £122 million at 1992 prices, plus £330 million in construction costs, and gained the right to collect tolls on both crossings to meet its financial obligations. The new crossing opened in June 1996, when cars paid £3.80, light vans and small buses £7.70, and large vehicles £11.80.
These tolling concessions continue until 2026, or SRC generates a specific cash amount, set in July 1989, and equivalent to £1,028,910,000 at today's prices. With around 25 million vehicles using the two bridges every year, calculations indicate this sum will be reached in late 2017 or early 2018, when bridge ownership will revert to the UK Government.
With that prospect in sight, last summer a "Severn Bridge summit" was held in Westminster, when a group of MPs, transport operators and pressure groups tabled a "wish list," demanding greater Government transparency over the future of these crossings. Top of the list was reducing or ceasing tolls altogether, and introducing automated payment systems and regular user discounts.
The Freight Transport Association has long been critical of these charges, and its Chief Executive, David Wells, who chaired the summit, said afterwards: “The Government must provide some clarity on its plans for the bridges. FTA would welcome a reduction in tolls to maintenance costs only. These are some of the most expensive tolls in the country, administered by outdated payment methods, which just add to congestion."
Its long been argued that both the tolls and peak time toll plaza congestion impact negatively on the economic health of the entire region, outweighing any financial benefit derived from the tolls themselves. Following suggestions in recent Budgets that VAT could be removed and tolls halved by setting them simply to recover costs, the summit learned a full consultation was proposed "in the next six to eight weeks," offering options on the way forward when administration of the Severn bridges passes to the Government.
Days later came the vote to leave the EU, turning those six to eight weeks into a very long time indeed in British politics; the consultation finally appeared on 13 January with pricing centre stage. Since 1997, legislation has required toll prices to remain constant after inflation, with no provision for reductions.
On regaining control, the Government proposes to halve tolls in general, and abolish altogether the existing £13.40 charge for vans and small buses Their toll would fall to just £3.00, the same as that proposed for cars and other category 1 vehicles, currently charged £6.40. Tolls for goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes and larger buses will fall from £20.00 to £10.00. Motorcycles will remain exempt, while TAG-style payments - currently accounting for about 25% of crossings - will continue, with prices falling by similar amounts.
Reduced charges are expected to increase traffic by around 17% by 2028, so to offset possible congestion issues, so-called 'free-flow' charging - as used at the Dartford crossing - is being evaluated. This could allow a return to two-way charging instead of westbound only at present - bringing potential for another 50% price reduction. Also under consideration are ways to reduce toll collection times, including "rounding down" toll payments to whole pounds - minimising numbers of coins needed for both payment and change - and possible daytime-only charging.
Despite claiming to be aware of an independently compiled Welsh assembly report showing that complete toll removal could significantly boost the south Wales economy, the consultation doesn't offer this most hoped-for option. The Government states this prospect, requiring outstanding debt clearance and bridge operation and maintenance costs to be offset against potential increased general taxation revenue, is "an attractive theory."
Neatly avoiding the reality that far more tax is raised annually from road users than is ever spent on roads, the prospect is ruled out by citing longstanding official policy... "users of estuarial crossings should pay for their upkeep."
The Government says it prefers a sustainable solution, balancing user and taxpayer needs - while guaranteeing continued safe running and upkeep of these vast and complex structures. The costs are considerable: consultation documents reveal annual operation and maintenance costs around £15 million, plus another £63 million incurred in fixing latent defects. Additionally, Highways England, which will take over from SRC, estimates that post-concession resurfacing will cost around £12 million.
Thus toll payments will fund the two Severn bridges for some time to come, despite some Government-acknowledged uncertainties over future operating costs. A key issue here is implementation of "free-flow" tolling, where costs could run into tens of millions of pounds. Experience in Britain and elsewhere has also shown on-going system operation is more expensive than booths and barriers, potentially increasing future toll charges. Its claimed halving existing tolls will generate enough revenue for the moment, though further reductions now could expose financial risk.
Ian Gallagher of the FTA, commenting on the announcement, said he's disappointed the Consultation does not go further and said, “While the reductions are welcome, the Government had a real opportunity to provide a boost to the Welsh economy by scrapping the £63 million debt, and introducing lower charges. Realistically, the FTA is keen to see out of hours travel permitted free of charge, as well as incentivisation for the take up of the TAG system.”
The consultation runs until 10 March 2017, so if you have any views on the Bridge of Sighs, you have just over a month to get them lodged. See the on-line links below.
The Welsh Assembly report "The impact of the Severn Tolls on the Welsh economy," together with an executive summary, are available at:
Concern and controversy has long dogged the Severn crossings for a whole range of reasons, usually involving money... A number of key issues are covered in this speech in the House of Commons on May 6th 1992 - long before the second Severn crossing opened - by Labour member for Newport East, Mr. Roy Hughes...
The full Consultation document "The Severn Crossings, reducing toll prices and other issues" can be found here...
© David Moss