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Tolled Bridges Review: Phase Two Report

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Executive Summary

Background

1. The Executive's Partnership Agreement includes the following commitment: "We will improve access for our rural communities by reviewing existing bridge tolls in Scotland and entering into negotiations with a view to ending the discredited toll regime for the Skye Bridge." The Transport White Paper (2004) stated: "There will be a two-Phase review of tolled bridges. The first Phase will deal with all existing tolls. It will assess all existing tolls, including the way in which potential changes to tolls could help achieve our environmental and economic objectives of reducing pollution and congestion. The second Phase will include an examination of the broader issues relating to the management, operation and maintenance of the tolled bridges. This will also include an assessment of how the tolled bridges relate to the new regional and national transport arrangements". The terms of reference for Phase Two were informed by the findings from Phase One.

2. The Executive's aim for the tolled bridges is to strike an effective balance between addressing access, managing demand (if this is required), ensuring efficient use of the associated road and public transport networks, and funding the ongoing maintenance requirements of the bridge. This report considers these strategic objectives and the implications of the future management, operation and tolling of each of the bridges. The methodology for Phase Two included a public consultation document and subsequent analysis, targeted stakeholder meetings, traffic modelling, literature reviews, technical reports undertaken by consultants, an options appraisal of management options, and discussions with Executive colleagues.

A Strategy for Tolling

3. Chapter 2 discusses the Executive's past and future strategy for tolling on Scotland's bridges, including the historical reasons for levying tolls, and the scope for using tolls or charges to address the growing problem of congestion, where that is required.

The Public Perception of Tolling

4. Bridge and road tolls are always controversial. Any debate around tolls, whether it be to remove them, increase them, or change aspects of the tolling regime (for example exemptions, or charging different tolls at different times of the day), needs to be properly informed. People need to understand the full implications of any change - not just for themselves but for other bridge users, the local and strategic transport network, the environment and the economy.

5. We know, both anecdotally and from research on road pricing and bridge tolls, that a perception of fairness is very important. If people have to pay a toll, they want to know how the revenue will be spent, and how they will benefit. They also want to know there are public transport options or other alternatives. This puts a major responsibility on the tolling authority to consider how it will communicate with, inform and consult with bridge users and other interested groups.

Funding construction, maintenance and operational costs

6. Where tolls were set up to pay for the construction of a bridge, and these costs have not yet been met, there is a strong case for users to continue to pay tolls which contribute to outstanding costs as, without a tolling regime in place, the bridge would not have been constructed; each was built on the understanding that it would be paid for by users. This may be reconsidered for specific bridges if there are significant economic, environmental or social reasons for doing otherwise.

7. Where the construction costs have already been met, using tolls to fund maintenance and operational costs is not in itself a compelling reason to keep the tolls unless this has been made clear from the outset - this is inconsistent with other parts of the road network and is perceived by motorists as unfair.

Managing traffic demand

8. Tolls can play an important role in helping the Scottish Ministers meet the wider objectives of managing traffic patterns and promoting more efficient use of the road and other transport networks, as part of an integrated approach involving all relevant modes, including car, bus, rail and ferries. Modelling from Phase One indicated that traffic levels on the tolled bridges and their approach roads are growing at a faster rate than elsewhere on the road networks. Where congestion is an issue, well designed tolling regimes can be implemented which encourage a shift from single occupancy journeys to public transport or multiple occupancy car trips. Tolling regimes can also encourage travellers to consider whether their journey is necessary, or can be made in other ways or at different times. Visible and appropriate transport improvements should be in place before toll increases are made to address demand.

9. At Erskine, there is currently no congestion problem on the Bridge itself, and tolling cannot be justified on the basis of demand management. There are congestion problems elsewhere in Glasgow, and Glasgow City Council has declared an Air Quality Management Area ( AQMA). Modelling has shown that congestion elsewhere, towards the centre of Glasgow, can be eased, and air quality problems improved, if tolls at Erskine are removed. These benefits would have to be "locked in" and there may be some localised increases in traffic that would need to be managed.

10. At Forth, there are severe congestion problems on the Bridge and no solution has been identified for those problems which does not include tolling as a critical element. Modelling indicates that congestion issues are improved at Forth if higher tolls are charged. Actual toll levels are a matter for the bridge authority to determine in the first instance, but Scottish Ministers make the final decision.

11. At Tay, there are some congestion problems at peak times, and Dundee is declaring an AQMA. Bridge traffic contributes to the air quality problems. As at the Forth Road Bridge, no solution has been identified for those problems which does not include tolling as a critical element. Modelling indicates that congestion issues are improved at Tay if higher tolls are charged. Actual toll levels are a matter for the bridge authority to determine in the first instance, but Scottish Ministers make the final decision. TRBJB's investigations indicate that a move to south-side tolling in the long term would allow further improvements e.g. in provision for public service and multiple occupancy vehicles.

Investing in transport networks

12. Where a tolling regime is required to address congestion and traffic management objectives, maintenance and operational costs of the bridge should be the first priority for expenditure. Where toll revenues exceed operating and programmed maintenance costs ( e.g., because the tariffs are being used to influence demand), there is a strong case for reinvesting in wider improvements to the surrounding transport network, where possible. This is to increase the efficiency of the network (and, as discussed at section 2.1, promote public acceptability of the tolling regime).

Tolls or road user charging?

13. Tolls are based on specific legislation for each of the bridges. That legislation provides for a tolling regime which was relevant at a particular time, and was designed to provide an income stream to cover the costs of construction, and ongoing maintenance and operational costs, for each of the bridges individually. While tolling legislation could be amended to give the tolling authority greater flexibility, changes to the purpose of tolling for any of the bridges requires primary legislation.

14. Alternatively, the road user charging ( RUC) provisions in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 are the result of wide-ranging consultation on the use of road pricing techniques for demand management purposes; are more flexible than the existing tolling provisions; and have a strategic purpose as part of a local transport strategy. These provisions currently apply only to local roads; achieving those benefits on bridges which are trunk roads would require significant new primary legislation.

Managing the Tolled Bridges

15. Chapter 3 examines potential management models for each of the three tolled bridges for the future, in particular against the new transport landscape in Scotland, and includes the outcomes of a qualitative options appraisal exercise.

The new transport landscape

16. Transport Scotland and the new RTPs form part of a new approach to delivering transport in Scotland. Even if they are not directly responsible for any of the bridges, Transport Scotland and the relevant RTPs will be key partners of bridge authorities.

Options Appraisal

17. Five options for managing the bridges were consulted on:

  • Transport Scotland
  • Regional Transport Partnerships ( RTPs)
  • A Forth Estuary Transport Authority ( FETA) style body
  • A Tay Road Bridge Joint Board ( TRBJB) style body
  • A new single Scottish Tolled Bridges Authority

Two further options were suggested during the consultation which have also been assessed:

  • A combined east coast FETA-style authority for both Forth and Tay
  • Private management of the bridges

In addition, we have assessed the possibility of removing the tolls at each of the bridges.

Methodology

18. Each of the eight management options has been examined against the four key objectives for the tolled bridges: managing traffic demand, where and if this is required; efficient use of the surrounding road and public transport networks; funding ongoing maintenance; and addressing access.

19. We have also appraised the achievability of each option against a range of criteria:

  • legislative/legal issues
  • a broad consideration of the costs and savings of implementation
  • impacts and acceptability, informed by the consultation exercise
  • timescale to implement
  • wider impacts, i.e. economic and environmental

Discounted Options

20. In the course of the appraisal, three of the options were considered not to meet the criteria set out above for achieving the aims of the tolled bridges.

21. Private enterprise - an initial assessment indicates that passing the management and operation of these key pieces of infrastructure to private enterprise could provide benefits in terms of financial savings and security for the Scottish Ministers over the course of a long term agreement. However, the risks associated with the maintenance and operation of the bridges, and the fact that there is little experience of operating such structures, could mean that the terms of such an agreement would offer no advantages over the other management models considered as part of this Review. In particular, there are potential tensions between the desire of an operator to ensure that the operation is profitable, and the need to strike a balance between the key aims for the existing tolled bridges. There are different considerations where new infrastructure is required - e.g. where the overriding aim is the provision of a new crossing.

22. Joint Forth and Tay management body - the appraisal indicates that though there are some rationalisation gains under this model, mainly from sharing back office functions, these would be offset by other pressures. These include the cross-over of local authorities with interest in only one of the bridges, the issue of "ring-fencing" revenues for each bridge, the continued need for a large number of staff on site at each of the bridges, and the distinct challenges that each of the bridges faces in the future.

23. Scottish Tolled Bridges Authority - the appraisal indicates that there are significant legislative and potential cost implications associated with this option, with marginal benefits that could be captured by other options. Those responding to the consultation did not see any advantages over other possible management models for the bridges, and were concerned by the loss of local accountability, particularly for the Tay Road Bridge.

Options for Erskine Bridge

24. Analysis indicates that, on balance, Transport Scotland should be responsible for the bridge, and that tolls should be removed. The opposition to tolling at the Bridge from local authorities in the area, MSPs and others, means that it would be difficult to gain acceptance for alternative management options at the Bridge. In terms of meeting construction costs and/or managing traffic demand at the Bridge, there is no strong policy basis for continuing to charge tolls. Traffic modelling has shown that removing the tolls can ease congestion elsewhere in Glasgow, particularly through the Clyde Tunnel and on the Clydeside Expressway and a number of other routes to the north of the Clyde. This would improve the efficiency of the wider road network.

25. If tolls were removed, all efforts would have to be made to "lock in" the resultant congestion benefits in Glasgow to ensure that the new free space did not fill up with new trips in the future. Removal of the tolls would result in a loss of toll income, amounting to some £5 - £6m per annum, although this would be partly offset in other cost savings. If tolls remain, Transport Scotland is the most appropriate management option, given the high percentage of strategic traffic and the lack of support from the relevant local authorities for other models.

Options for Forth Road Bridge

26. Analysis indicates that tolls should remain on the Forth Road Bridge, and that the Forth Estuary Transport Authority ( FETA) is, on balance, the most appropriate management option. FETA has the powers to address congestion and manage traffic demand, invest in wider transport improvements, make financial provision for planned maintenance and upgrading of the bridge (some £113 million between 2006/7 and 2020/21), and take forward a road user charge. However, it has experienced some significant problems recently due to its governance arrangements. This has led to uncertainty for bridge users. As the Bridge represents a key link in the transport network, management by Transport Scotland could allow Ministers to manage cross-Forth travel in a more strategic manner. This would require primary legislation. The RTP option is less appropriate as not all local authority members have a direct interest in bridge issues and, in the early stages, the relevant RTP will not be set up to manage major infrastructure.

Options for Tay Road Bridge

27. Analysis indicates that tolls should remain on the Tay Road Bridge, and that the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board should continue to manage the bridge. The Board would benefit from having extra powers to tackle congestion on and around the bridge, and this would be assisted by removing the statutory requirement on the Board to repay all the outstanding debts by 2016/17.

28. The current Board has no remit beyond maintaining and operating the bridge itself. This limitation means that it cannot meet the complex challenges required to manage and maintain the bridge in the greater context of the transport network. Both the RTP and Transport Scotland options are inappropriate options for Tay. The Bridge straddles the boundary between two RTP areas and therefore selecting the appropriate RTP would be difficult; the large majority of traffic on the bridge is local and therefore it would not be appropriate to bring it into Transport Scotland at this time. While moving to the FETA model under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 would allow the Board to be more flexible, recent experience at Forth has shown that the governance arrangements of FETA can be problematic, and those problems may be reproduced at Tay if a FETA-style body were introduced. Furthermore, repayment of the outstanding debt on Tay should remain a priority of the tolling regime. For that reason, the FETA model's greatly expanded powers of investment in wider transport improvements might be unnecessary. However, the existing Board's powers should be widened to allow it greater flexibility in meeting emerging challenges.

Setting Tolls

29. Chapter 4 discusses a number of specific issues in relation to how toll levels are set - the procedure for changing tolls; exemptions and discounts for specific vehicles or travellers; and the relationship between tolls and the damage caused to the bridge. It also considers current and future developments which will have an influence on tolling - technological developments, and standardisation of vehicle classification.

Legislation and procedures for setting and changing tolls

30. The current legislation and procedures for setting or varying tolls are not consistent across the tolled bridges and, as the 2004 inquiry relating to the Forth Road Bridge tolls showed, may not be perceived as an appropriate way of handling objections to proposed toll changes. This conclusion is supported by most respondents to the consultation. It is important that tolled bridge users continue to be consulted on proposed changes and that their views are taken into account in the decision-making process, but Ministers should have final approval of changes. Further analysis is required to develop a consistent and fair approach for setting and varying tolls.

Exemptions from tolls

31. The Scottish Ministers are committed to improving access for all travellers, including disabled travellers. Continuing exemption from bridge tolls for disabled drivers supports that policy and is consistent with The Road User Charging (Exemption from Charges) (Scotland) Regulations 2004. However, there is a need to ensure that the verification systems can operate to speed travellers through the toll booths as quickly as possible, through improving current manual systems and by seeking to make the most of emerging technology to verify Blue Badge, and other, exemptions automatically.

32. There is widespread support for extending toll exemptions to vehicles operated by the Coastguard. A change to this effect is also in line with The Road User Charging (Exemption from Charges) (Scotland) Regulations 2004. There is also strong support for exempting public service vehicles ( PSVs) from bridge tolls in Scotland, consistent with the Executive's policy of encouraging greater use of public transport. The Road User Charging (Exemption from Charges) (Scotland) Regulations 2004 provide a possible framework for defining and exempting PSVs. A strong case has not been made for extending exemptions to other groups or types of vehicle. These include commercial breakdown services and multiple occupancy vehicles.

Discounts from tolls

33. There is broad support for tolling incentives for multiple occupancy vehicles ( MOVs) where congestion is an issue. Discounts, for example, for MOVs could help bridge authorities to better manage traffic demand in terms of the number and timing of vehicle crossings, where this is required. Discounts may also offer bridge authorities greater scope for managing demand than an exemption, as the amount of the financial incentive can be subject to greater variation. The multi-crossing (or frequent user) discount, however, is contrary to the key aims for the tolled bridges, and is out of line with wider objectives relating to traffic stabilisation.

34. There is scope for improving traffic flows and tolling efficiency through the use of electronic payment systems. Discounted toll charges could be used as an effective incentive to encourage travellers to use such schemes by, for example, fitting electronic tags to their vehicles. However, this would need to be balanced against traffic outcomes and the need to ensure extra trips are not rewarded.

Relationship between damage caused by vehicles and toll levels

35. It is necessary to strike a balance between ensuring the ease of movement of goods and services, to support the economy of Scotland, and asking bridge users to pay an appropriate contribution to the costs of maintaining the tolled facility. The present tolling structures at Forth and Tay Road Bridges go some way towards this, while the flat rate toll at Erskine takes no account of the impact of different vehicle types and loads. Overall there is probably a case for tolling structures including higher tariffs for HGV traffic, to reflect their impacts. However, tolls should not be set at so high a level as to discourage economic activity, or redirect significant heavy traffic to less appropriate routes.

Modernising tolling operations

36. Both FETA and TRBJB are moving towards the introduction of modern electronic tolling systems which offer a choice of payment methods to drivers and offer scope for better traffic management and improved flows at the toll booths, as well as reducing the costs and resources involved in handling cash transactions. The systems being introduced or investigated are compliant with EU requirements on interoperability of electronic toll systems, and will allow recognition of On Board Units ( OBUs) from other charging schemes. At Erskine Bridge, tolling systems are currently manual only, but will have to be updated in the near future if tolling remains on the bridge.

Standardising vehicle classifications

37. Standardisation of vehicle classification can bring significant benefits to both bridge users and tolling operators. With the move towards electronic tolling, there is a real opportunity to drive operational costs down, by implementing technology to a common standard across all three bridges. While there are currently difficulties in agreeing a common set of classifications, and in designing systems which can automatically detect and distinguish between different vehicle types, these issues are being addressed on a UK and Europe-wide basis, e.g. through the introduction of the European Directive on the Interoperability of Electronic Road Toll Systems in the Community.

Caveat

Since the Review was completed, two significant issues have arisen in relation to the Forth Road Bridge: the results of the main cable testing; and FETA's Application in Principle for a Road User Charge under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001. Neither of these issues, nor the subsequent decisions relating to a potential replacement crossing, have been considered in the Review.