National Alliance Against Tolls - Forth Bridge - A8000 scheme

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Forth Bridge - A8000 scheme

NAAT Scotland have been taking an interest in the A8000 / M9 spur scheme since before the December 2004 Inquiry into the proposed toll increase. We have asked various questions using the Freedom of Information Act and have gradually obtained various letters from the bridge authority - FETA. What we have learnt raises various issues. The key points are summarised below and we have drawn them to the attention of some of the MSPs.

SUMMARY

  • When the Minister made his announcement on the 1st March 2006 that the tolls will be kept, it was claimed that the Forth bridge is operating over capacity and that it has to be tolled to deter users and reduce the congestion. But various statements made by the bridge authority - FETA - before the 1st March make it quite clear that even the authorities recognise that it is the inadequate roads in Lothian which causes the traffic problems in and around the bridge.:- On 28 November 2003 a FETA press release quoted FETA deputy convener, Councillor Lawrence Marshall saying - "There's a increasing feeling of disquiet over the rising costs of the A8000. We all know how important this road is in cutting congestion around the bridgehead, but my fear is FETA is having to shoulder an excessive burden of the cost of keeping the east of Scotland on the move.""

    On 23 July 2004 FETA issued another press release giving progress on the scheme, including - "FETA Convener Councillor Mike Rumney said that the inability of the present road to cope with bridge traffic leads to early morning delays southbound on the bridge and delays for drivers heading for the bridge during the evening rush hour".

    On 27 June 2005 another FETA Press Release quoted the Bridgemaster - "The new road will be especially helpful in reducing congestion for southbound traffic during the morning rush hour. The existing A8000 is incapable of meeting the flows of traffic using the Forth Road Bridge, which causes back-ups onto the bridge. Any minor breakdown on the A8000 also causes traffic hold-ups on the bridge."

    At their 24 February 2006 meeting, FETA approved the main contract for the scheme, 2 weeks before in a press release, Councillor Lawrence Marshall, FETA convener, says:- "...This contract marks a major step forward for a very important project...The new motorway link will be especially helpful in reducing congestion for southbound traffic during the morning rush hour. It will make journeys over the bridge faster and more reliable...". There was another press release on the day of the meeting which said:- "...The new 4.5km road is expected to make a significant impact on southbound congestion on the bridge, reducing queues caused by traffic backed up from the current A8000."
    The southbound congestion on the bridge in the morning peak is mainly caused by the inadequate roads in Lothian.

    The northbound congestion before the bridge in the evening peak, is partly caused by the inadequate roads and partly by the tolling that they want to keep. The tolls can only have a harmful effect as unless tolls are set at a very high level they will not deter roads users during peak periods.

  • The Tolls Review process was a hollow exercise with the Executive having no intention of removing tolls from the Forth or Tay bridges.

    On 15th May 2003 the Executive published "A Partnership for a Better Scotland". The Transport section included "Reviewing existing bridge tolls in Scotland and entering into negotiations with a view to ending the discredited toll regime for the Skye Bridge". That review was only completed when on the 1st March this year, the Transport Minister told MSPs that he had decided to keep two tolls - Forth and Tay. But for most of the time that this Review was going on the Executive and FETA were discussing not only keeping the tolls, but bringing in Road User Charging, partly so the Executive could avoid financing the A8000 scheme.

  • The A8000 should have been treated as a trunk road and the scheme fully paid for by the Executive.

    They already pay the costs of 3,500 kilometres of other trunked roads and bridges, that carry nearly 40% of all Scotland's traffic and over 60% of heavy goods traffic. They initially tried to get Edinburgh City Council to pay for the scheme by saying that it was only a "local" road and within their area. Edinburgh refused. Then someone seems to have come up with the idea that Forth bridge tolls could be used, particularly if the law was changed (which MSPs agreed to in 2001 and 2002).

  • The impression is still being given that the Executive are now paying for the A8000. But even if all the conditions are met and none of the grant is diverted to public transport, 15.5 million will have to be met from bridge tolls.

    The latest estimated cost is 39.5 million, the maximum conditional grant that the Executive have agreed is 24 million.

  • The main condition was that FETA had to introduce a Road User Charging scheme. The impression has been given that this condition has now been waived, but this is only definite for the first instalment of grant.

    On the 1 March the Minister rejected FETA's first "Application for Approval in Principal", and on 14 March the Road User Charging condition was waived in respect of the first 5.605 million of the grant (which covers the year up to March 2006). It is not clear what will happen in the year starting April 2006 or later years. We have asked FETA whether they have been told what will happen, and in the absence of an answer have assumed that they haven't. It is fairly clear that both FETA and the Executive still want to introduce Road User Charging.

  • There is an implied condition that in effect the grant is not used to finance the road, but is instead spent on "Local Transport Strategy". This would mean that all of the 39.5 million cost of the road will come from bridge tolls.

    A November 2005 letter from the Executive says that they "would expect the Authority to maximise the opportunities afforded by this funding, in terms of supporting and investing in public transport and other schemes designed to reduce congestion.". The minutes of the FETA November meeting show that their reaction to the approval of grant was that it would give them more to spend on public transport etc.

  • Throughout FETA have in our opinion accepted risks that they did not need to.

    They accepted responsibility for a scheme that should have been paid for by either the Executive or Edinburgh City Council and seem to be have not been very concerned as to whether the finance came from bridge tolls or not. When the FETA board accepted a tender of some 28 million for the main contract on 24th February, they did so before the Executive waived any part of the condition that FETA had to introduce Road User Charging. As mentioned above the Executive have waived this condition for the period up to March 2006, but they only did this in a letter of 14th March. To the extent that they have recognised the risks and got limited guarantees from the Executive, it may be because we have been raising the issue with them since last October.

  • FETA are wasting 5 million on new toll booths.

    When they committed themselves to this not only were tolls due to end on the 31st March 2006, but if they introduced a Road User Charging scheme then it may cover a wider area than the bridge and and thus might require booths in a different location or a different system.


    DETAIL

    1. Proposals to upgrade the A8000 go back as far as the 1970s. By the early 1980s an "offline" (new road) scheme was developed by Lothian Regional Council. This scheme was stopped by the Scottish Office later in the 1980s.

    2. Eventually a new scheme emerged and was approved in 1996/97. This scheme was short-lived as the Scottish Office stopped it again when Labour came to power in 1997. The scheme and others would be looked at again as part of a "Strategic Roads Review".
    The outcome of the review was that the scheme was reinstated and Edinburgh were asked by what was by now the Scottish Executive to draw up plans. They did so, and in November 2001 issued a glossy booklet giving details of the scheme. It said the scheme "has been developed to provide the missing strategic road link between the central belt motorway network and the Forth Road Bridge". There was no mention in the booklet of the road being financed from bridge tolls, but there may have been some sort of deal that the new road would be financed from the bridge tolls.

    3. The Transport Scotland Act was passed in 2001. Part 3 of the Act enabled road user charging. In March 2002 the Executive made the Forth Estuary Transport Authority Order 2002, which was agreed by MSPs. This created FETA, extended the life of the tolls to 31st March 2006, and also extended what the tolls could be used for. It now included:- "The Authority may develop, support and fund such schemes and measures including roadworks, traffic management and public transport services, which it considers appropriate to reduce road traffic congestion on the bridge or to encourage an increase in the use of public transport across the Firth of Forth."

    4. Also in March 2002, just before FETA came into being, the Scottish Executive issued a document titled "Delivering Improvements" to transport. This included the A8000 scheme. The Executive said that this was only a "local road" and therefore Edinburgh City Council was responsible for it, but they then went onto say that maybe FETA could agree to fund it.

    5. Though FETA came into being in April 2002 and was expected to pay for the A8000, the scheme was and is managed by Edinburgh City Council. All FETA does is approve the contracts and pay for the scheme.

    6. On 20 June 2003, FETA were given a progress report indicating that the cost would be about 25 million, there was no mention of how it was being financed.

    7. On 28 November 2003, FETA were told that the estimated cost had risen to 29.5 million, again there was no mention of financing. The FETA Press Release said - "FETA deputy convener, Councillor Lawrence Marshall, added: "There's a increasing feeling of disquiet over the rising costs of the A8000. We all know how important this road is in cutting congestion around the bridgehead, but my fear is FETA is having to shoulder an excessive burden of the cost of keeping the east of Scotland on the move.""

    8. On 12 March 2004, FETA were told that "discussions had taken place with the Scottish Executive regarding the funding of the Scheme and the report be submitted to a future meeting of the Authority".
    FETA also agreed to apply for an increase in tolls.

    9. On 18 June 2004, FETA was given another progress report - there had been a public local inquiry in January 2004, and land acquisitions were progressing. The report at last mentions the financing:-
    "... Members and officers met with Nicol Stephen, Minister for Transport and officers of the Scottish Executive on 24th February to discuss the Authority's financial plans including this scheme. The response to the discussion is appended to this report and it will be noted that the Executive have agreed to explore the possibility of securing funding from 2006/07 onwards on a contingent basis until Road User Charging is introduced to enable the Authority to proceed with Scheme. The Scottish Executive will confirm the position in the autumn of this year."

    On 23 July FETA issued a press release giving progress on the scheme, including:-
    "FETA Convener Councillor Mike Rumney said that the inability of the present road to cope with bridge traffic leads to early morning delays southbound on the bridge and delays for drivers heading for the bridge during the evening rush hour".

    10. On 29 October 2004, FETA were told that the estimated cost had gone up to 32 million. There was no mention of financing.

    11. In December 2004 Tom Minogue went to court to dispute the legality of the 2002 Order and thence of the tolls. Tom's main purpose was to get the Inquiry into the proposed Toll Increase delayed or stopped. The court refused to delay the Inquiry, without determining whether the tolls were lawful or not. Tom later dropped his action, with the Executive waiving their costs of 3,500 and giving Tom 1,500.

    12. The Inquiry took place later in December 2004. Part of FETA's case for needing a toll increase was that they needed it to pay out 30 million for the A8000 scheme. Part of our grounds for objecting to the increase was that tolls should not be used to pay for what should really be a trunk road. But at the Inquiry the scheme was effectively removed by FETA from their spending pans, as they said they had entered into negotiations with the Executive with a view to the Executive funding the scheme.

    13. On 3 March 2005 FETA were told that cost had again increased to 35.5 million, with as usual no mention of financing. The meeting approved an initial contract for "consolidation of mineworkings" etc.

    14. On 28 April 2005, there was an Executive Press Release and a letter from them to FETA. (See 10 October 2005).

    15. On 27 June 2005 FETA issued a Press Release which said:- ".... Construction of the 35.6million replacement for the congested A8000 will be funded by the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA), operators of the Forth Road Bridge, with grant aid and underwriting by the Scottish Executive."
    The release also quoted the Bridgemaster:-
    "The new road will be especially helpful in reducing congestion for southbound traffic during the morning rush hour. The existing A8000 is incapable of meeting the flows of traffic using the Forth Road Bridge, which causes back-ups onto the bridge. Any minor breakdown on the A8000 also causes traffic hold-ups on the bridge."

    16. On 2 September 2005, FETA were told that the estimated cost was now 36 million. FETA usually put the minutes on their website, but they didn't appear and we contacted them on 4th October. We were given a copy and on the 6th asked "The minutes show the A8000 cost has risen. Is there anywhere that it indicates how much of the cost of the scheme is being paid for by the Executive as against how much FETA will pay?" Our reason for asking was that we were contacting MSPs with various points, one of which was tolls being used to finance the A8000.

    17. FETA replied on the 10th October - "FETA are responsible for the total costs of the A8000 upgrade with the Executive providing underwriting up to 24m." It struck us that this was a bit vague and that FETA were potentially ignoring risks. After speaking to various people, we were initially referred to an Executive press release of 28th April 2005 - "Upgrade of A8000 to go ahead". This was also vague, referring to a "potential" amount and "detailed discussions" which had not taken place.
    We were not aware, and the press release did not mention, that the offer of grant was conditional on there being a Road User Charging scheme. We spoke to FETA finance officers and gave our opinion that a prudent organisation would not proceed with the scheme, without something more definite. They said that they had received a "definite" approval on 28th April and we asked for a copy.

    18. On 12 October the Executive gave us a copy of the 28 April letter. They pointed out that the "detailed meetings (mentioned in the letter) between SE and FETA officials, which should begin very soon" were still "ongoing". But in any case it was now clear that it was a conditional offer and that on this basis it would not be prudent for FETA to proceed. The part of the April letter referring to this was:- "As discussed at the meeting, the Minister is willing to underwrite the upgrade with up to 24 million of direct grant funding to the Forth Estuary Transport Authority over the next 2 to 3 years. Mr Stephen made it clear that the offer of grant is made on the understanding that FETA will continue to develop, finalise and implement its Local Transport Strategy which includes, amongst other things, a clear commitment to move towards replacing the current tolling system with a road user charging scheme, designed to reduce congestion on and around the Bridge. I understand that you and Councillor Rumney were happy to give such a commitment on FETA's behalf." 19. On 25 November, FETA, considered a report on "Integrated Transport Initiative - Application for Approval in Principle" . This was the famous 4 tolls proposal. Immediately prior to that they considered a report (that was handed round the table) on the A8000. The minute to this report says:-

    "Financial Assistance from the Scottish Executive
    The Convener ruled this item, notice of which had been given at the start of the meeting, urgent because of the financial implications for the report on the Integrated Transport Initiative - Application for Approval in Principle.
    The Scottish Executive had previously provided underwriting of up to 24m to allow the A80001M9 Spur upgrade to proceed. It had now offered a grant of up to 5.605m towards the expenditure incurred in the design and construction of these works during 2005-06. 3 Forth Estuary Transport Authority 25 November 2005.
    Any offer of grant in 2006-07 and 2007-08 would depend on progress towards implementing the proposed road user charging scheme. Repayment of funding was not required on the understanding that this would allow the Authority to progress the implementation of the Local Transport Strategy, maximising opportunity to support and invest in public transport and other schemes designed to reduce congestion.
    A separate offer of grant of 750,000 had also been received from the Scottish Executive to provide match funding for the development costs of the road user charging scheme and evaluation of equipment for vehicle identification.
    Decision
    To welcome the offers of grant from the Scottish Executive and to authorise the Chief Executive and the Treasurer to accept the grants on the terms and conditions outlined in the report and the letters from the Scottish Executive. (Reference - report by the Treasurer 24 November 2005, submitted)"
    20. The report includes:- "The attached letter confirms that FETA will not be required to repay funding received in respect of the A8000/M9 Spur upgrade. The Integrated Transport Initiative - Application for Approval in Principle assumes that repayment to the Executive, will be required. This announcement may, therefore, allow FETA to offer a higher contribution to the ITI package."

    21. Appendix 1 to the report is a letter dated 16 November 2005 from the Executive to FETA. The letter says:-
    "...The offer of funding recognises the importance of the link and the commitment of all parties to see the new road delivered. However, it is made on the understanding that FETA will proceed to implement the now finalised Local Transport Strategy which includes, amongst other things, a commitment to replacing. the existing tolling system with a road user charging scheme." and "I should emphasise that this offer of funding relates solely to the present financial year. That does not cut across the wider commitment to provide up to 24 million in underwriting for the project, if needed. However, I am conscious that priorities and financial pressures on FETA are changing rapidly. As a result, I think it is sensible that any funding contributions in later years should be agreed in the light of continued monitoring. In particular, the provision of grant in 2006-07 and 2007-08 will be dependent on progress towards implementing the proposed road user charging scheme...."

    22. On the same day as the November meeting FETA issued a press release thanking the Executive for giving them funding for the A8000 - "...The funding has been made on the understanding that FETA will proceed with the implementation of the finalised LTS strategy, including plans for the new RUC scheme." Not many people will have understood what that meant.

    23. We were not at the time aware of what had happened about the A8000 at the November meeting, as the 4 tolls grabbed all the attention. But on 13th Feb this year we again raised the issue of the A8000 with the FETA finance officers, following sight of a report going to FETA on 24 Feb. The Finance officers referred us to the report that was handed round the table at the November meeting. There were various other questions that we raised, including what FETA spent on the scheme prior to 1st April 2005 (answer was 1,949,064) and whether the main contract had been signed.

    24. At the 24 February meeting FETA approved the main contract for the building of the new road. The full estimated cost of the scheme was now 39.5 million. Again there is no mention of financing.

    25. FETA issued a press release 2 weeks before the February meeting, Councillor Lawrence Marshall, FETA convener, says:- "...This contract marks a major step forward for a very important project...The new motorway link will be especially helpful in reducing congestion for southbound traffic during the morning rush hour. It will make journeys over the bridge faster and more reliable...".
    There was another press release on the day of the meeting which said:- "...The new 4.5km road is expected to make a significant impact on southbound congestion on the bridge, reducing queues caused by traffic backed up from the current A8000."

    26. Also at the February meeting, FETA approved their budget for 2006/07. It included spending on the A8000 of 7,095,000 in the year just ending, and 8,384,000 in the year just starting. There were some mentions of the scheme in the Budget report including:- para 3.13 "The financial forecast which is shown in Appendix 3, includes a grant of 24m from the Scottish Executive towards the cost of design and construction of the A8000 Scheme. This offer of funding has been made on the understanding that FETA will proceed to implement the local Transport Strategy, including the replacement of the existing tolling system with a Road User Charging Scheme."

    para 4.7.iv. "Fulfilment of grant conditions - The Scottish Executive has made a commitment to underwrite the costs of the A8000/M9 Spur upgrade to a maximum of 24m. The provision of grant in 2006/07 and 2007/08 will be dependent upon progress towards implementing a proposed road user charging scheme."
    27. On 14th March the Executive wrote to FETA they referred to the grant condition that FETA had to introduce a road user charging scheme, and that the Minister had on 1st March rejected their application for Approval in Principle. The letter went on:-
    "I can confirm that the offer of grant for 2005/06 stands ... and that we would intend to make further grant contributions up to the maximum of 24 million..."

    28. On 22nd March we contacted the FETA Finance officers following up the February queries and asking "Can you confirm that the main contract has been signed. As you know, we think that there is a risk that the Executive may not make any further contributions, because FETA will not have met one or other of the conditions. Will you confirm that only the 5.6 million is guaranteed. Will you also let us know what advice, if any, was given to FETA on the risks of not receiving any further grant and what the consequences would be."

    29. On 27th March they replied that:- "An acceptance letter for the tender was issued on 16 March 2006 We have received confirmation from the Scottish Executive that the offer of grant for 2005/06 stands, with the possibility of rephasing some of the overall funding to allow a greater contribution this year, and that the Executive intend to make further grant contributions, up to the overall maximum of 24 million, depending on continued satisfactory progress on the scheme" They asked us to direct future correspondence to FETA (The FETA Finance officers are part of Edinburgh City Council).

    30. The same day we contacted FETA:- "We raised the issue of risk on this scheme with the Edinburgh finance staff last year. Mr ..... has not answered the latest question relating to what risk advice was given to FETA, and has referred me to you. Can I now ask you-
    Can we have a copy of the confirmation letter that you received from the Executive...and
    What advice, if any, with regard to risk (of all the grant not being received) was given to members of the FETA board when they agreed to the main contract"
    .

    31. On 28th March, FETA replied that they were treating this as an FoI request and we would have to wait up to 20 working days for an answer.

    32. On 19th April, they told us about the Executive letter of 14th March and said that they would send us a copy (which they did). They also said:-
    "The 2006/07 Budget Report approved by FETA on 24 February (Item 5) details the risk analysis at paragraph 4.7. Point (iv) referred to the 'Fulfilment of Grant conditions'. This has been superceded by the letter referred to above, however the risk was taken into account when determining the adequacy of the level of reserves held by FETA at paragraph 4.12 which stated that 'the projected balance by year 2021 on the General Fund of 18m is considered to be adequate taking into account the authority's overall financial resources, the risks identified in this report and the arrangements in place to manage these'".

    33. We replied to FETA the same day "My question was "What advice, if any, with regard to risk (of all the grant not being received) was given to members of the FETA board when they agreed to the main contract." The items that you refer to were not the points at which the main contract was agreed. Can you confirm that no risk advice was given at that point." On 21st April FETA replied that "We believe we have answered your question..."

    34. On 8th May we contacted FETA Finance Officers to find out whether there had been any firm offer of A8000 funding from the executive for the period from April 2006.
    There were between then and 26rth May various with the Finance officers to FETA and FETA itself. The overall result of which is that FETA would tell us no more and we have had to assume that there is no firm offer. As a side issue we were also told that "FETA agreed to provide funding for the A8000 / M9 Spur upgrade on the basis of the letters dated 16th November 2005 and 14th March 2006". A statement which we queried as the FETA board had accepted the main contact for the scheme at their meeting on 24th February , i.e. before the 14th March letter.

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