National Alliance Against Tolls - Message to Fife Councillors on 19 March 2006

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Message to Fife Councillors on 19 March 2006

Dear Councillor,

There is a meeting of FETA in Dunfermline on Monday morning. It is to deal with the approval of the application that FETA made for the tolls to be extended and the rejection of the application that FETA made for "approval in principle" of road user charging.

We wonder if there will be an attempt made at the meeting to have the tolls removed. Edinburgh councillors and possibly others may vote against this. But if no attempt is made, then it will raise the question of why not, particularly as the Tay bridge board is now seeking the removal of tolls.

FETA application for tolls to be extended

We have been seeking information from FETA and the Scottish Executive on the extension of the tolls. There was a report "Funding of Bridge Maintenance" considered by FETA on the 3rd March 2005. The report was treated as exempt from the requirement to make information available to press and public, and it was considered with press and public excluded.

The minute for the item says "1) that Officers enter discussion with the Scottish Executive to seek to resolve the review of the Forth Estuary Transport Authority Order 2002, and 2) that Officers be authorised to initiate the necessary statutory procedure described in the report to protect the authority's income for bridge maintenance from 1st April, 2006". Two of the 4 Fife FETA members tried to have the second part of the motion withdrawn, but they were defeated by the other FETA members.

It is to say the least a strange minute, as without sight of the report, we do not know what exactly the officers were being authorised to do.

Our interest in this resolution and report started when we asked FETA what the authority was for their application on the 21st December to have tolls extended. FETA said that the authority was this resolution. It seemed odd that a resolution that was over 9 months old, and which was not explicit, was given as the justification. We applied to FETA on 15th February to see this report. On 15th March the request was rejected, and we have asked for that refusal to be reviewed.

We also applied on 17th February to both FETA and the Executive for a list of and copies of all correspondence between the Executive and FETA on the subject of tolls or road user charges for the period from 1st January 2005 to date.

The Executive have so far not given us anything, but yesterday (Saturday 18th March) we got copies of the correspondence from FETA. Some of the information has been blanked out and FETA say that it is not "in the public interest for such information to be released". What FETA has released includes a letter dated 12 December from the Executive to FETA. The letter deals with a number of issues including:- "there seems to be some confusion as to whether the FETA board has agreed to extend the toll order ... we would appreciate clarification, and a formal request to extend the order if that is how FETA wishes to proceed." What was the cause of this confusion? Was it because decisions were being made with press and public excluded?

"Reasons" for keeping Tay tolls

When on the 1st March, the Executive said that they would be keeping the Tay bridge tolls, their stated reasons were: a) tolls help to relieve congestion, and b) the bridge is not yet "paid" for.

As everyone but the Executive knew the main cause of congestion in Dundee is traffic queuing during the evening peak to pay the tolls. This was again pointed out to the Transport Minister on Thursday 16th following a written question from Iain Smith. The Minister replied "..The construction costs of the Tay road bridge have not yet been recovered. That was the primary reason for the decision not to remove tolls..."

The Tay bridge opened in August 1966, and it cost 4.8 million to build. The tolls income is 3.6 mullion EACH year. It does not need an accountant to calculate that the construction cost of the bridge must have effectively been "recovered" long ago. We have now been advised that "the current outstanding loan debt of 13m will only include a small proportion of the original debt taken out when the bridge was constructed in 1966. The vast majority of the 13m debt is in respect of borrowing for capital repairs and enhancements that have been carried out in the last 20 years."

So the "construction costs" of the bridge have in effect been paid off. But on the basis that the users of this road have to pay all costs ad infinitum starting from 1966, it may be that the costs will never be "recovered". Particularly as the Executive ignore the 4 billion of taxes collected from roads users in Scotland.

"Reasons" for keeping Forth tolls

On the 1st March, the Executive said that they would be keeping the Forth bridge tolls because: a) tolls help to relieve congestion, and b) a new crossing may be needed. The Transport Minister told the MSPs "The issue of most concern is cable corrosion on the Forth bridge".

There are numerous ways that congestion can be eased, and at various times we and others have suggested them. One of these ways is improvement to the A8000 / M9 spur, which is at last going ahead, though it looks as if most, possibly all, of the cost of this "strategic road for Scotland" will in effect come from bridge tolls rather than the 4 billion of roads taxes.

The stick of tolls is not used elsewhere in Scotland and should not be used where tolls were supposed to have stopped in 1995. If people are on the road at a busy time, it is because they need to be. Only the most exorbitant of tolls will cause them to change their journey (or home or work). This has been recognised even by the Executive.

You may have seen a letter in the Courier on Wednesday. The Forth Bridgemaster reassured us that there is nothing wrong with the bridge that will not be put right. He also mentioned the engineer's report that was commissioned by the Scottish Executive.

Our alliance have never said there was anything wrong with the bridge, our concern was that headlines such as "Fears time running out for road bridge" and "Chaos fears as bridge lifespan put at 10 years" only diverted attention from the tolls issue.

The report that the Bridgemaster mentioned was produced at the end of January. We were not allowed to see it by the Executive and we submitted a Freedom of Information request. The report was then published on the 7th March. The report concludes that corrosion was only "of serious concern if left unchecked". Why was this report not released till after what the Minister said on the 1st March. It would also have been relevant during the recent by-election when the bridge and the tolls was a major issue.

Further information requested

Though the Executive made their announcement on the 1st March, the report on Phase Two of the Tolled Bridges Review on which the decision was based, was not published till the 8th March. That report refers to other reports including "Analysis of Tay and Forth toll scenarios and interaction with other bridges". We have asked under the FoIS Act to see that report.

In the meantime some of the modelling information has also been published in the last few days. We have not finished looking at this data. But it appears that like the Phase Two report, it only includes congestion data for the AM peak. The period that would get most benefit from removal of queues to pay the tolls is the PM peak. We have asked under the FoIS Act, for the "brief" that was given to the people producing the report.

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