Two tolled river crossings are in the news this week. On Tuesday the Department for Transport launched a consultation on an additional crossing of the Thames at or close to the existing bridge and tunnel at Dartford.
One of the big question marks, over and beyond the exact location of the new infrastructure, is how it will be funded. The presumption is that it will be through direct charges to users. After all that is what was used to pay for the QEII Bridge built in 1991 to augment the tunnel. The big grumble as regards that project has been, despite what drivers were led to believe, the government’s failure to remove tolls even after though the bridge has long since been built and paid for.
Which leads us on to the Severn Crossings. At first glance the situation is markedly different here.
The first road link between Wales and England was opened in 1966, but as traffic volume increased it became necessary to build a second bridge and that opened in 1996.
Today crossing operations are run by the Severn River Crossing PLC. As it stands this company has the concession to collect charges until it hits a certain amount of revenue, currently in the order of £1 billion, a figure likely to be reached (traffic volume, corporation tax etc. allowing) in around 2018. At the point the bridge reverts to public ownership with an expectation that the regulated tolls (price £6.20 for a car) will be removed.
Except they won’t, certainly not for a couple of years afterwards. Why? Because even though the Severn River Crossing company runs the bridges the government has somehow managed to incur costs of £88m in relation to the links and this money also needs to be recouped through tolls before they are scrapped.
In a letter to David Davies MP, chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee in Parliament, the transport minister Stephen Hammond MP explained how the costs had arisen:
“The concession agreement and Act was structured so that certain risks were borne by Government rather than SRC, for example, costs relating to latent defects on the first Severn Crossing. By bearing these risks the government was able to finance the construction of the second crossing and maintenance of the crossings at a much lower cost. If these risks had been included in the concession arrangement the end date of the concession would have needed to be extended to allow the concessionaire to recover its costs or the tolls would have needed to be set at a higher level. It is also likely that a private company would have required a substantial risk premium in order to take on these risks.”
Of course, there will be the strong suspicion that, against the wishes of road users and public bodies such as the Welsh Affairs Committee, the toll will never be removed, even after the extra £88m has been found, and instead will go up further still. After all, that is what happened at Dartford.