In this guest blog, Ann O’Driscoll from business group North Bristol SusCom, explains why abolishing the Severn Bridge tolls will create more problems than it solves.
As a group of leading employers in the west of England, we are very concerned about the removal of the Severn Bridge Tolls at the end of December 2018 and the additional traffic such a move will generate in an already congested North Bristol.
The Government carried out a public consultation at the beginning of last year asking for input on their plans to halve the tolls on the Severn Crossings.
Both our organisation (representing 40,000 employees and 30,000 students) and the four West of England unitary authorities (representing 1 million+ people) responded saying this was not a good idea, especially at peak times, as it was likely to cause considerable congestion in the area and encourage more people to drive, more often, leading to more traffic and congestion.
We argued that ongoing tolls could be used to maintain the bridge and any surplus could be invested in improving sustainable transport links between South Wales and the West of England.
The consultation document stated that the Government was not proposing to remove the tolls as it “would put at risk the future of the Crossings”. It stated that annual maintenance costs would be around £15 million and a further £12 million was needed to resurface the Bridge after the end of the concession period. The Government was also “concerned that reduced tolls could result in increased traffic and congestion in areas surrounding the Crossings, both in Bristol and along the M4 in Wales, where there are already concerns about congestion levels”.
They said they were “mindful that reducing tolls would increase traffic, and has conducted modelling which suggests 17 per cent more vehicles using the Crossings by 2028 as a result of the toll reduction”. This is on top of an expected 28 per cent increase in traffic using the routes if the tolls remained – so a 45 per cent increase in traffic by 2028.
Despite their own concerns and the concerns raised by our organisation and the four West of England Unitary Authorities, the Government announced, just after the 2017 general election that it was abolishing the tolls by the end of 2018.
No detailed transport modelling has been undertaken to understand what the likely increase of vehicles using the Crossings will be with no tolls. We can safely assume it will be greater than the 45 per cent quoted above but – how much greater?
What are we going to do about mitigating the increase in traffic? There is no plan or funding earmarked to invest in improving connectivity between South Wales and the West of England.
We need a comprehensive, funded investment plan that will help reduce traffic and deliver:
• improved frequency and capacity on the rail network (above and beyond what electrification will bring);
• improved, direct bus connectivity and new commuter coaches during peak times to reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles on the road;
• better affordability of public transport to make it a more cost-effective option for people to use instead of the car;
• a network of Multi-Modal interchanges (Park and Ride, Park and Share, Park and Cycle) to remove additional car traffic from clogging up the motorways and entering built up, congested areas;
• better cycle links;
• high occupancy vehicle lanes at peak times on motorway corridors;
and much more.
This decision actively encourages people who currently travel by train between South Wales and the West of England to drive instead, leading to yet more pollution and greater congestion.
A person living in Caldicott/Chepstow who currently drives to the Severn Tunnel Junction train station pays about £58 per week in combined rail fares/car parking fees. With the impending rail price rises from the 1st of January 2019 and the abolishing of the tolls the day before, the commuter from Caldicott/Chepstow will be £28-30 financially better off a week driving their car than taking the train.
We recently received a response to a letter we wrote to Chris Graying, outlining our concerns about the removal of the Severn Tolls. The Department for Transport says in the response: “Removal of the tolls will mean more people will be able to afford to cross the border in both directions to seek job and trade opportunities. This will support motorists, residents and businesses across Wales and the south-west helping rebalance the economy as part of the Industrial Strategy. These benefits are expected to be associated with an increase in traffic around the Severn and Bristol area”.
Rebalancing in this instance implies that the removal of the tolls is to help stimulate the South Wales economy at the expense of the West of England economy (to balance something out something has to rise and something has to fall). The Welsh Government are happy with this. The UK Government seems okay with it too: perhaps they forget that the West of England is a net contributor to HMRC.
We are looking to the West of England Combined Authority to speak up for the local area. We need action now, before all the hard work to grow our successful economy is swallowed up in gridlock.
Ann O’Driscoll is the Director of North Bristol SusCom, a group of leading employers working together to reduce congestion and support the development of a fully integrated, sustainable transport network for the West of England.
North Bristol SusCom encourages car sharing, walking, cycling, bus and rail as preferred ways to travel to work and around the area on business, and leads by example, taking a co-ordinated approach to managing traffic impact and supporting 40,000+ staff and 30,000 students to reduce the number of short car journeys they make.