Government talks have begun to buy back the Skye Bridge and abolish all tolls, it emerged yesterday. The buyout will cost the taxpayer £23million-plus - more than it cost to link the island in the first place!
Under the deal, the Skye Bridge Company, owned by the Bank of America, financed the construction and was given a Government concession to charge tolls to recover their costs. In reality, the Bank put in a mere £6m while the Taxpayer paid £15m (see Public Accounts Committee report on Skye Bridge Fiasco).
But with mounting anger and resentment over the tolls, scheduled to run for the next 19 years, the only way the Executive can abolish the tolls is to buy back the bridge. At present the Scottish Executive is already paying out £2million a year in subsidies to the Bank of America and also in VAT imposed by Europe on all toll roads & crossings. SKAT have long campaigned that not only are the told illegal, that there is a real case that buying back the bridge early will actually SAVE the Taxpayer money.
Transport Minister Nicol Stephen confirmed: "We have made initial contact with Skye Bridge Ltd and hope to start discussions shortly. The Executive is committed to removing the bridge tolls and entering negotiations to end the discredited Skye Bridge toll regime."
Lib Dem leader and Ross, Skye and Inverness West MP Charles Kennedy confirmed the buyout would be completed "as soon as possible".
He said: "The toll-paying public have reached the end of their tether with the totally discredited Skye Bridge tolls. Over the years the ludicrously high toll has done huge damage to the local economy and prevented many of the benefits of the bridge being felt. The Scottish Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Executive insisted on entering into negotiations as soon as possible."
Research carried out for Highland Council estimates a bridge buyout will bring an additional £4.6million a year into the local economy and create over 250 jobs.
A council spokesman said: "The Scottish Executive has not estimated a precise cost of buying out the bridge. But figures from the National Audit Office reveal the total toll payments to be paid to Skye Bridge Ltd was to be £128million over the lifetime of the concession. It is likely it would currently take at least £23million, plus whatever else extra Skye Bridge Ltd negotiated, to buy out the bridge."
Amelia Simonini, the vice-convener of SKAT, said: "A buyout is the only sensible solution, and it could be a buyers' market for the Scottish Executive. The Bank of America is not getting the revenue it expected in tolls and the only way it could increase revenue would be to put up the toll charges but it wouldn't dare because even less people would use the bridge."
"The Westminster Government went ahead and set up the deal to finance the cost of building the bridge. The Scottish Executive did not exist at the time. It was Westminster's mistake so it should have some responsibility for the cost of buying back the bridge."
This is a monuments step towards abolition of the tolls and the freedom of the people of Skye!
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 2003.
Most recent revision, 17 June 2003