The new bridge - an idea whose time has come

Key quote

"The most optimistic timeframe for replacing the crossing is around 2014, if work starts now. This ensures that if we need a new crossing, we have not lost time waiting for the results of relevant studies." - TAVISH SCOTT, TRANSPORT MINISTER

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PREPARATIONS to build a new 500 million road bridge across the Forth must begin immediately, ministers announced yesterday.

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Tavish Scott, the transport minister, said planning had to start now because a new bridge would not be ready until 2014 at the earliest.

The move came as toll plans were also announced for the Erskine and Tay bridges.

A new assessment of the damage to the existing Forth Road Bridge showed it might have to close to lorries sometime between 2013 and 2018 and to all traffic by 2019-24 if serious corrosion on the structure's main cables cannot be fixed.

Mr Scott told MSPs: "Starting preparatory work does not commit us to constructing a new crossing. But - given the evidence - it is essential to start preparations in case we need to replace the bridge.

"The most optimistic timeframe for replacing the crossing is around 2014, if work starts now. This ensures that if we need a new crossing, we have not lost time waiting for the results of relevant studies."

Mr Scott said these would include the design of a crossing, its cost and how it would be funded. However, he stressed that the Executive was only considering a replacement crossing and was still reviewing the case for an additional bridge.

The Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA), which called for a second bridge last year as the only long-term solution to increasing congestion, has estimated it would cost at least 500 million and more than 1 billion if it also carried trains. Consultants who reassessed Conservative plans for a new crossing, which were abandoned ten years ago, have said another suspension bridge to the west of the existing bridge would be the best option.

However, the latest step towards a new crossing is likely to further fuel the opposition campaign, which has received hundreds of messages of support from across the world.

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The ForthRight Alliance, an umbrella group of environmental and heritage groups, is hoping to repeat its success in seeing off the previous plan.

FETA is hopeful that blowing dry air into the bridge cables will arrest the corrosion, but it is expected that the crossing would have to close if the cables have to be replaced. Mr Scott said an audit of the corrosion he ordered in November showed the bridge might have a slightly longer lifespan than previously thought, but experts could not give exact dates.

Mr Scott also rejected plans yesterday to replace 1 tolls with charges of up to 4, a decision which bridge managers warned could mean traffic queues doubling and peak-time congestion extended by an hour.

The minister said he had thrown out plans for higher charges as public transport improvements must be completed first to provide alternatives. He added that even a 4 toll would not cut congestion sufficiently.

However, Lawrence Marshall, FETA's chairman, expressed anger at the rejection of variable charges to tackle congestion and fund transport improvements. He said freezing the 1 tolls would increase annual bridge traffic from 24 to 30 million vehicles - three times its design capacity - in just over a decade.

That would add another hour to peak-hour congestion and see southbound queues stretching back five miles to Halbeath in Fife - twice as far as at present. He said: "The level of service on the bridge is poor and it will now get more than poor."

Mr Scott confirmed that current tolling powers, which run out on 31 March, would be extended. The Confederation of British Industry business group welcomed the freezing of tolls, which it described as "a welcome shot in the arm for freight and distribution firms".

The decision was also backed by the Tories. David Davidson, their transport spokesman, said: "Until it is clear just how the existing bridge's structure is to be secured and the viability of another crossing ascertained, the 1 toll should remain." However, the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth Scotland said it was "bitterly disappointed" at the lack of measures to tackle traffic increases.

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The Scottish National Party accused the Executive of "blatant discrimination" against Fife in not abolishing tolls. Bruce Crawford, a Mid-Scotland and Fife MSP, said: "I am utterly bewildered about the lack of strategic thinking and the sheer political opportunism being shown by the Lib Dem transport minister and his Labour colleagues.

"From today, 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.

"It is a gross injustice for Fifers to have to pay to go north over the Tay or south over the Forth, while bridge charges are being abolished in every other part of Scotland."