We need a decision now to avert economic disaster

Key quote "We very much welcome The Scotsman's campaign to secure a new Forth crossing. A new crossing is a need-to-do, not a nice-to-do, which is why we put it top in our business manifesto. It is crucial that an early decision is taken." - IAIN MACMILLAN, CBI SCOTLAND

Story in full TODAY The Scotsman launches a campaign to demand the Scottish Executive immediately commits itself to building an additional crossing over the Firth of Forth to avert an economic disaster.

Engineers are predicting the existing road bridge between North and South Queensferry will be closed to lorries by the end of 2013. Six years later, the bridge could be so weak that it may have to close altogether.

Yet dithering by ministers means it could already be too late to build a new bridge or tunnel in time. And rather than tackling the issue head on, the Executive has put off the decision until after the election.

Pursuing such a strategy is to take an unacceptable gamble with Scotland's economy. Economists calculate that a lorry ban would cost the nation about 900 million a year. A total closure of the bridge would cost about 2 billion.

No wonder then, that The Scotsman's campaign is backed by every major business body and many transport groups, as well as scores of politicians.

CBI Scotland, the Institute of Directors Scotland, the Scottish Tourism Forum and the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland all say an immediate decision is vital.

Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, said yesterday: "We very much welcome The Scotsman's campaign to secure a new Forth crossing. A new crossing is a need-to-do, not a nice-to-do, which is why we put it top in our business manifesto. It is crucial that an early decision is taken."

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce, as well as the individual Edinburgh and Fife chambers, are also backing The Scotsman's campaign.

Liz Cameron, director of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: "We support The Scotsman's campaign for a new crossing, to be built in time to preserve this vital strategic route.

"By failing to move fast to kick-start the process, we risk putting back Scotland's infrastructure by 40 years, causing unimaginable damage to the economy."

Major Scottish firms such as Havelock Europa, Dobbies, and Tullis Russell believe the restrictions and eventual closure will have incalculable costs.

Hew Balfour, chief executive of the school furnishing manufacturer and shopfitter Havelock Europa, which employs 930 people in Dalgety Bay and Kirkcaldy, said: "We support The Scotsman's campaign for a quick decision on a replacement Forth crossing and an urgent start on the project. We have 60-70 lorries crossing the bridge every week and face uncomfortable choices.

"If the decision is deferred until after the election, it may be further delayed dependent on the political complexion of the incoming Scottish Executive.

"As the possibility of future restrictions on the existing bridge become a probability, then businesses like ours are forced to examine whether moving out of Fife is the only safe bet."

Transport groups backing a new crossing include the Freight Transport Association (FTA), AA Motoring Trust and RAC Foundation, and Superfast Ferries, which operates between nearby Rosyth and Zeebrugge.

Gavin Scott, the FTA's head of policy in Scotland, said: "We need a new crossing urgently. The current work cannot do any more than halt the deterioration at best. Closing the bridge to goods vehicles before a new crossing is complete is unthinkable. The economy of Fife in particular and Scotland in general would suffer greatly and the congestion on alternative routes, such as Kincardine, would gridlock the central Scotland motorway system."

The bridge has long carried far in excess of the 11 million vehicles a year it was designed for. It currently carries about 24 million, a figure set to rise.

The 42-year-old engineering icon is in intensive care: it is wired up to acoustic monitoring technology. The latest readings showed on Friday the problem is getting worse. The bridge awaits the retrofitting of Japanese air-drying technology.

The sense of an approaching national emergency is based on the Forth Estuary Transport Authority's (FETA) own assessment of the bridge's condition, which was made public in November 2005. FETA said its calculations of the decline in the bridge's strength at present suggested 12 more years of safe operation, and only seven years for lorries.

But its final fate will not be known until 2012, the year before FETA's projected lorry ban.

Asserting that all of the issues are being examined or re-examined pending a report due next May, Transport Scotland, the Executive agency, declined to answer questions on how long it calculates a new crossing would take to construct.

But time is running out. Even if a preferred type and site of crossing are decided on next May, approving and constructing a bridge or tunnel all but guarantees a white-knuckle ride to completion. Construction of both the Forth Road Bridge and the Forth Bridge was delayed by the area's geography, and labour will be in short supply in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics.

How, given what is now known about the existing bridge, and the minimum estimated completion time of another crossing, could Jack McConnell, the First Minister, assert last week that "people who use the Forth Road Bridge will not be left without a crossing - if indeed a replacement is required"?

Our belief, shared by commuters, businesses, tourists, those whose livelihood depends on the passage, and by transport experts, engineers and economists and politicians of all parties, is that the economy cannot afford to gamble.

Why will Mr McConnell and Tavish Scott, the transport minister, not commit immediately?

We expect ministers to listen to what Scotland's wealth creators say about the need for a new crossing, listen to engineers, and act fast.

Instead of dithering, Scotland needs to hear the words: "There will be a new Forth crossing." And it needs to hear them now.


Alastair Andrew, bridgemaster and general manager, Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA)

"FETA is committed to the principle of a new multi-modal crossing so we support The Scotsman's campaign for the following reasons: the South East of Scotland Transport Partnership has predicted that, despite the introduction of more buses and more trains over the Forth Road Bridge and the Forth Bridge, the system will be overwhelmed by 2011, with effects beyond Fife and the Lothians. We are already planning 16 weekends of contraflow traffic at the weekends next year to do repairs, which will have a major impact on the tourist industry. More pressingly, the discovery of corrosion in the main suspension cables means that we have already suffered a loss of strength."

Robert Wright, professor of economics, Strathclyde University Business School

"I fully support The Scotsman's campaign. In a situation like this politicians, bureaucrats, economists and journalists must take their lead from the scientists and engineers. They say the bridge is breaking down at this rate, and a new structure would take that amount of time to build. Unless you think they are lying to us, there is no benefit in waiting. If you accept that this is a vital economic project, you accept the big cost now on the understanding that it will cost more the longer you wait, and in this case the damage to the rest of the road network will be astronomically expensive. If you want infrastructure that is going to promote our economic performance you have got to do this."

Alan Wilson, chief executive, Scottish Council for Development and Industry

"Given the importance of the bridge to the whole Scottish economy, any dragging of feet presents huge risks for businesses and jobs. This apparent delay sends a clear negative signal to business in the east of Scotland, and also to road hauliers. We all know that, following the go-ahead, planning, designing and procuring the bridge is going to be an extremely lengthy process, so with all the indications saying that a new bridge is a "no-brainer", we cannot see any but political reasons why the Executive is prevaricating. We see a lot of merit in the option of a tunnel, but, in any case, it's important that all the issues are debated fully, and that the debate starts now. It is so important for business confidence in Scotland."

Alan Russell, chief executive, Fife Chamber of Commerce

"The Executive has known about the corrosion issue for over a year now, and we still get words, not action. The matter could easily have been before Parliament and a decision to press ahead taken earlier this year, if for no other reason but to give confidence to business and to demonstrate that the Executive is serious about the economy. Where has the leadership been on this issue? Why are they claiming to 'fast-track' it if they don't already think a new crossing is necessary? In power since 1999, Labour ignored the fact the bridge is operating well over its design capacity. No politician in government has been prepared to stand up and be counted on the issue, and worse, it suited them not to believe what they were told about the corrosion on the cables."

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