A bridge too far: Mersey Gateway

This hugely expensive bridge proposal emerged in a different era and risks bankrupting a small unitary authority.

Route of Mersey Gateway bridge and roads (map data copyright 2011 google)The Mersey Gateway Bridge (MGB) project is a proposal for a new 6-lane bridge across the Mersey, about 1.5 kilometres to the east of the current Silver Jubilee Bridge. The project would be funded by contractors who would attempt to make a profit from toll payments. However, economic analysis has shown that any profits would be very unlikely until close to the end of the contract period.

The bridge and associated roads would run from the Central Expressway in Runcorn to the Eastern Bypass and Speke Road in Widnes. The total cost of the scheme was estimated at the public inquiry in 2009 to be £604 million, based on 2007 prices.

What is happening:

In late 2010, this scheme was added to the Department for Transport’s ‘Supported Pool’, but on condition that a complex financial deal was put together that would attract private investors. In October 2011, the terms of that deal were agreed – with the DfT agreeing to put in £86m for the capital costs, and up to £14.5m per year in long-term revenue support for 26.5 years after the bridge was opened.

The promoters are now looking for investors who are willing to take on the building, financing and operation (DBFO) contract

Since the project was placed in the Supported Pool, a number of changes have also been made to reduce the cost of the bridge, including removing toll barriers and using cameras to enforce the tolls. These changes mean a new planning application will need to be made, and a consultation on these changes ended in November 2011.

Why this is a bridge too far:

Wigg Island, Runcorn by western4uk on flickr ccbyNorth West Transport Roundtable (NW TAR) has been opposed to this huge project from the start.

In 2011 NW TAR teamed up with Campaign for Better Transport to publish a joint report on the financial risks of this project (see below). This followed on from an exercise in 2010 when NW TAR, along with Friends of the Earth, asked transport consultant Alan Wenban Smith to study the economic case for the bridge that Halton Borough Council had put forward as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

His report concluded that:

  • There are other more effective means of tackling Merseyside’s regeneration and traffic congestion. Halton Borough Council had "failed to assess the proposal against other ways of meeting the same objectives"
  • The MGB would hugely increase carbon emissions in the area
  • Figures for toll revenues and benefits were very sensitive to small changes and so not reliable
  • Regeneration and job creation estimates were very unrealistic

A financial risk:

The lack of a sound financial basis for the proposals - currently a complex mix of government grants, private loans and PFI deals to be repaid through toll revenue over several decades – were highlighted by an independent expert report jointly commissioned by North West Transport Roundtable and Campaign for Better Transport in January 2011.

This concluded that the business case for the bridge is very shaky, with huge financial risks being faced by Halton Borough Council and local people. There has been an increase in the cost of PFI and loan finance since the original proposal, and there is now a very real danger that toll revenue would not cover the huge cost of the scheme at these higher rates.

North West Transport Roundtable logoLocal campaigners:

In 2009, the North West Transport Roundtable (NW TAR) formed an alliance with Friends of the Earth (FoE) to give evidence at the public enquiry into the bridge proposals.

You can also see the proofs of evidence presented by NW TAR and FoE to the public inquiry on the ‘documents’ page of the NW TAR website:
http://www.nwtar.org.uk/

At the inquiry, the Alliance said:

"It is an anachronism that this bridge is still being promoted 15 years after Government accepted the case that providing more highway capacity ultimately leads to more traffic, and more than 10 years after accepting the fact that there is no automatic correlation between providing new road space and economic benefit. Indeed new roads can suck a workforce away from an area.

“Halton should plan instead for sustainable alternatives with no risks to health and zero impacts on climate change for the sake of future generations.”

Better ideas:

Silver Jubillee Bridge, by CrosvillE on Flickr, ccbysaThe development of the MBG proposals, and the modelling carried out by the promoters, has ignored a wide range of better value ways of reducing congestion in the wider area around Halton – for example ‘smarter choices’ programmes of travel planning, active travel and improved information about public transport.

Smarter choices programmes cost just a few million pounds to implement and have been shown to reduce traffic significantly, and much more rapidly than the time it would take to build a bridge.

More surprisingly, there has been no detailed investigation into the idea of introducing a modest charge on the existing Silver Jubilee Bridge, along with lower charges or free travel for local residents.

The existing bridge will be tolled under the current proposals too, but introducing this measure first and spending the money raised on street improvements and new public transport measures could help the local economy more quickly, and also remove any need at all for a £600m new bridge.

Transport improvements that could be paid for this way could include:

  • A new railway station at Widnes on the West Coast Main Line, with a shuttle bus into the centre
  • Bringing forward existing rail projects, such as the Halton Curve
  • Upgrading the Runcorn busway
  • Targeted initiatives such as taxi buses and ‘wheels to work’

More details:

Promoted by: Halton Borough Council
Total cost: £604m
Length: 9.5km including new link roads
Cost per metre: £63,578
Website from the bridge’s promoters:
http://www.merseygateway.co.uk/

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