20 January: Halton Borough Council wants to build a new bridge over the Mersey, funded by private finance. But our report shows that the tolls are going to be much higher than they're letting on.
When we heard that Halton BC wanted to build a £600m bridge paid for by tolls of around £1.40, we pricked up our ears. That didn't sound right, even though Halton planned to toll an existing bridge (the Silver Jubilee) as well.
So we teamed up with the North West Transport Activists Roundtable, and asked some private finance experts to have a look at their data. Halton had kept all the financing documents secret at the public inquiry, but what was public showed conclusively that there was no way that tolls that low would cover the cost of building and running the toll bridges.
It gets worse: Halton had tried to sweeten the deal by offering local residents a substantial discount. But 90% of traffic on the two bridges is local... only one in ten would be paying the full price!
That wasn't the only problem. The cost of PFI deals has skyrocketed over the past few years, making estimates of the total cost of the scheme look very optimistic. We also discovered that much of the risk would end up being bourne by the state, not by the private sector.
It wouldn't be the first time that PFI transport deals had turned out to be worse than predicted. The National Audit Office just finished rebuking the Highways Agency for its terrible M25 deal, and last year we reported on just how badly the M6 Toll was doing.
It's not too late for Ministers to call time on this costly and risky project. Instead of rushing in, the Government must wait to see what the financing deal looks like, and cancel the whole thing if the deal can't be made to stand up.