Bridge boss furious over decision to freeze tolls

FORTH Road Bridge chairman Lawrence Marshall today reacted furiously to the decision to freeze tolls and demanded the Scottish Executive spend £163 million on public transport improvements.

Cllr Marshall, head of the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA) which runs the bridge, said higher tolls would have slashed traffic levels and funded major projects such as an expansion of park-and-ride facilities.

But he said FETA had now been "left without a penny" and could no longer afford to do anything other than maintain and operate the bridge. In a message to the Scottish Executive he said: "Can we have 163m please?"

After weeks of media leaks, the Executive finally made public its position on bridge tolls and gave the go-ahead for planning work to begin on a new crossing yesterday afternoon.

FETA's plans to introduce a road-user charging scheme - with variable tolls rising to 4 for solo motorists - were rejected. The decisions sparked a furious reaction from politicians, campaigners and lobby groups across the east of Scotland.

Fife Council demanded tolls across the Forth be scrapped completely, after the Executive handed motorists a free ride over the Erskine Bridge, near Glasgow.

But environmentalists said more must be done to curb traffic levels, and attacked the decision to press for a new bridge.

Transport Scotland, the Executive's new agency, last night said planning work on the new crossing would start "immediately".

In an afternoon of high drama, Cllr Marshall was clearly rattled by the Executive's decision. "I am very disappointed," he said. "All our plans to improve the road infrastructure and improve public transport - we don't have a penny to fund that anymore.

"It strikes me that we are stuck with 1. We can't afford our local transport strategy to tackle cross-Forth transportation issues. This issue is not going to go away and the Executive now needs to cough up the cash."

Last year FETA set out a 231m investment package, which included additional bus routes from Fife to Edinburgh and West Lothian, an expansion of Ferrytoll park-and-ride, and new road links. The body was to make a 70 per cent contribution - 163m - with the rest coming from funding partners such as Fife Council.

Alastair Andrew, FETA general manager, said: "The Scottish Executive legislation that created FETA in 2002 makes our role clear - we are a charging authority with an explicit remit to invest in schemes to tackle traffic congestion and encourage the use of public transport, as well as maintain the bridge.

"A road user charging scheme was to be the key mechanism for fulfilling this remit." Transport Minister Tavish Scott admitted the pressure of more and more traffic on the Forth Road Bridge was "unsustainable".

He said: "Such congestion is bad for motorists, the environment, public transport users and our economy."

Mr Scott pointed to Executive support for bus station enhancements in Fife, bus services from Inverkeithing and Ferrytoll to Edinburgh, a rail-bus interchange at Markinch and the A8000 road upgrade - due for completion in early 2008.

"Before there is any toll increase on the Forth, travellers need to see the completion of visible improvements such as these," he said.

"We have therefore decided to reject Forth Estuary Transport Authority's application."

A new bridge is estimated to cost at least 600m, and most experts believe it will take 11 years to build.

'The 4 tolls were dead when a consensus could not be reached'

Reaction to yesterday's announcement from the Scottish Executive to freeze tolls at 1 and start planning work on a new crossing.

• Dunfermline and West Fife's new Lib Dem MP Willie Rennie: "Like me, local people were outraged by these proposed huge increases."

• Fife Council Labour leader Anne McGovern: "I will be asking all other political parties to support me in a campaign to make Fife free of tolls."

• SNP MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife Bruce Crawford: "From today, [Transport Minister] Tavish Scott will forevermore be known as the minister who left the Tay and Forth Road Bridge users as the only people continuing to pay the Toll Tax in Scotland."

• Green Lothian MSP Robin Harper: "These decisions come from the same people who think building more motorways in Glasgow and around Aberdeen will solve congestion."

• City leader Councillor Donald Anderson: "The 4 tolls were dead in the water when cross-Forth consensus could not be reached."

• Friends of the Earth Scotland's chief executive Duncan McLaren: "We are bitterly disappointed that ministers have failed to back sensible measures aimed at tackling rising road traffic levels. The Executive is also wrong to take forward plans for a second Forth Road Bridge, without first completing vital technical studies."

• Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh West Margaret Smith: "I welcome the Executive's intention to freeze tolls but I am keen to see the Executive and FETA working together to find ways of tackling the growing traffic levels and numbers of HGVs using the bridge."

• Director of lobby group TRANSform Scotland Colin Howden: "For the second time in a year, a Scottish local authority has come forward with practical proposals for road pricing, and yet again the Scottish Executive has failed to support the plans."

• National Alliance Against Tolls spokesman John McGoldrick: "This is a betrayal to the people of Fife, who will continue to suffer the cost, inconvenience and economic blight of tolls."