£300m price tag put on bridge to beat gridlock

BUSTING one of the biggest traffic congestion hotspots in Scotland will cost a breathtaking £300m, transport experts have concluded.

That is the official price tag of constructing a third bridge over the Firth of Forth which would carry both vehicles and trams and could slash the regular mile-long queues that build up during the rush-hour.

The idea was abandoned seven years ago by the incoming Labour administration but was revived in November last year amid growing concern over chronic congestion on the bridge, the key road link between south-east Scotland, Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen.

Consultants have studied the cost of building a third bridge and their findings have been passed to the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA), which will tell ministers that building the crossing is vital to the entire nation’s economic health.

FETA meets next week to discuss the findings and is expected to argue that it should be allowed to borrow the funds to build the bridge and recoup the costs through tolls. If approved, the bridge would cross the firth to the west of the existing road and rail bridges and would be designed to carry trams or a light railway as well as motor traffic. This would help counter claims the bridge was adding to congestion in Edinburgh.

Options studied include restricting southbound vehicles to the present bridge and northbound traffic to the new crossing. Alternatively, heavy goods vehicles approaching from either direction could be diverted to the new bridge.

Experts said tolls for motorists would have to be in excess of the present 80p charged to cross the firth - rising to 1 in October - to recoup costs within an acceptable time-scale. Separate charges would have to be levied on public transport operators and reflected in the price of tickets.

The new study was carried out by engineering consultancy FaberMaunsell, which was asked last year by FETA to reopen an earlier study, Setting Forth, carried out in the 1990s for the Scottish Office.

The early plan was ditched as an environmental disaster, but the Scottish transport minister, Nicol Stephen, asked last year for the idea to be reexamined.

FETA’s general manager Alastair Andrew said: "This updated report gives us a starting point for issues such as costs and time-scales. If it is concluded a new bridge is required and a decision taken immediately, even with a fair wind it would take nine to 10 years to deliver."

FETA, a consortium of four councils - Fife, Edinburgh, West Lothian and Perth and Kinross - first raised the need for a new crossing over the Forth at Queensferry last November.

FETA’s chief executive Douglas Sinclair said a new crossing was of "key strategic significance" to the whole of the country: "It is vital to the nation’s economic health. We can’t procrastinate, especially when you bear in mind that it will take 10 years to deliver a new crossing."

FETA is concerned that the current road bridge can no longer cope with increases in traffic. When the bridge opened in 1964, four million vehicles crossed in the first year of operation. Last year, the figure grew to 24 million.

Engineering experts point out that the current 40-year-old bridge is carrying over twice its design load, which has triggered an expensive 3.5m resurfacing programme that will have to be carried out every five years if traffic levels stay the same or continue to grow.

Bridge operators are currently halfway through a 16-week programme of weekend lane closures which have caused major tailbacks on both sides of the bridge.

"This will have to happen every five years which we believe reinforces our case for a new crossing," Rae added.

Had the bridge gone ahead in the early Nineties, it would have been Britain’s biggest privately funded infrastructure project after the Channel tunnel.

The project was killed off when Labour came to power in 1997 but supporters believe that with congestion problems over the Forth increasing, the Executive has no choice but to reconsider the options.

Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish National Party’s transport spokesman said the situation was "unsatisfactory" and a new crossing should be seriously considered. But he added: "What we do not want is a new bridge that simply funnels more traffic into the Edinburgh area."

Friends of the Earth Scotland said: "This is not the way we should be going. More roads and more bridges just generate more traffic instead of reducing congestion."

A Scottish Executive spokesman said "We have no current plans for another Forth bridge. But we are working to reduce traffic and congestion on the Firth of Forth bridges."