New Mersey crossing ends Halton’s congestion misery
First publishedin ITS International
When the UK government wouldn't fund a new bridge over the Mersey, Halton Council decided it had no option but to build the crossing itself. (images: Merseyflow)
Plagued by intolerable congestion but denied government funding for its solution, tiny Halton Borough Council relentlessly pursued its vision and achieved what many believed impossible.
Halton may be a small local authority in north west England, but it had a big traffic problem. However, as the road, or more particularly the bridge, involved was not deemed a strategic route, central government would not commission or even fund a solution - a problem that many other local authorities will recognise.
The borough of Halton has two big towns, Widnes and Runcorn, situated (respectively) on the north and south banks of the River Mersey, roughly equidistant between the city of Liverpool and the town of Birkenhead to the west and the main M6 north-south motorway to the east. Only the Silver Jubilee Bridge connects Widnes and Runcorn. It has two (narrow) lanes in each direction and spans both the Mersey Estuary and the adjacent Manchester Ship Canal.
Initially designed for 9,000 vehicles a day, currently between 80,000 and 85,000 cross the Silver Jubilee Bridge daily, creating regular tailbacks and congestion throughout both towns. Any additional traffic caused by drivers diverting off the M6, some 15km (10 miles) to the west or a blockage in the Mersey tunnels to the east, or maintenance on the Silver Jubilee Bridge itself, leads to gridlock on both sides of the river. Not only is this inconvenient, but as some of the important services are located only on one side of the river, such as the hospital and Liverpool Airport, the repeated isolation of the two towns could not be allowed to continue.
To make the situation worse, the local population is set to increase which will inevitably create even more congestion – possibly to a point where it could start to threaten the viability of local businesses. Action was most definitely required. While a second Mersey crossing has been a long-held ambition, to relieve congestion a complete new route for through traffic would need to be created. Furthermore, as the new bridge would be east of the existing structure, it would need to span the St Helen’s Canal as well as the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. The bridge would need to cross an environmentally sensitive salt marsh and mudflats while the new connecting roads would run across areas where the region’s industrial heritage has left a legacy of significant ground contamination.
Despite these and other complications (including government imposed budget cuts), the council invested around £40m in planning the only realistic solution – a new bridge. In 2004 a major scheme appraisal was submitted to the UK government along with a request for funding. While there was no objection to the project, the funding request was declined because it is DfT policy to toll estuarial crossings, and the bridge was not classified as a strategic route and was therefore not the responsibility of the UK’s Highways Authority but of the local authority - Halton Borough Council.
With a population of around 125,000 and an annual budget of just over £100million, Halton could not fund the £60million needed to build the necessary bridge and approach roads needed to solve the problem. But traffic predictions showed doing nothing was not an option, so in a courageous move the council committed further expenditure to commission additional modelling of various tolled solutions – as suggested by the UK Department for Transport (UKDfT). This showed that traffic volumes would mean tolling could repay the capital needed to build a new bridge but, for both financial and operational reasons, only if a toll was also introduced on the existing Silver Jubilee Bridge.
Charging tolls to cross a previously freeuse bridge, did not go down well with local voters and could have impacted businesses around the region, creating a dilemma for the council. “It was the only way we could make it work,” says Matthew Fearnhead, commercial and contracts manager for the Mersey Gateway Crossing Board (MGCB) – a dedicated entity set up to manage the project at arm’s length from other day-today council business.
James Lee, support services and delivery manager with Emovis, has specified full redunancy of the tolling system
“Faced with a choice of both bridges being tolled or no new bridge at all, the overwhelming response by the council, local businesses and most residents was favourable because people recognised that the congestion was only getting worse,” Fearnhead adds.
Simply building a bigger bridge in the same location would not solve the problem as it would still mean all the traffic passes through the towns. Instead the proposed new route would run northwards for 9.5km from the M56 link between the M6 and Birkenhead, across the estuary to join the A562, from which traffic can access the main M62 Liverpool to Manchester motorway. Key to the new route was a 1km cable-stay bridge carrying three lanes in each direction with viaducts at either end to span the Mersey, the Ship Canal and also the St Helens Canal (which joins the river upstream of the old bridge). Imposing tolls only on the section from a junction on the south bank to the northern end of the new route would allow the free-use southern approach to act as a bypass for Runcorn town centre. The existing Silver Jubilee Bridge would be subject to the same tolls.
As it lacked experience in running a commercial toll collection business, the council split the project (which has a projected total cost of £1.86bn) into a 30-year design, build, finance and operate (DBFO) contract and a seven-year demand management participation agreement (DMPA) for the tolling and revenue collection. In 2014 the DBFO was awarded to the Merseylink consortium headed by Macquarie, BBGI and FCC Construction, which effectively isolated the council from many of the construction and financing risks.
“Tendering for the DBFO was relatively straightforward. We were comfortable with the construction and maintenance side of the project and the contract included nancial penalties if key indicators such as lane availability criteria and journey time targets [equivalent to 40mph] are not met,” says Fearnhead.
The same could not be said about the tolling side of the project. “Both the council and Gateway board were quite open about the fact that we had no expertise in managing a multi-million pound toll collecting business. Therefore we needed an organisation that could develop and manage end-to-end tolling and we wanted to build in the exibility to make necessary changes or amendments at certain points,” he adds.
When considering bids for the DMPA, the bidders’ ability to assist the MGCB and the council to not only configure the tolling operation but to advise on the tolling scheme itself, was a major factor.
“We also needed somebody who could take care of PR and marketing the tolling scheme because again we had no experience in this area, and [Emovis] had done this sort of thing in many countries.” says Fearnhead.
Eventually the contract was awarded to the Mersey ow consortium with Emovis ful lling the toll operator function and providing advice. According to Emovis’ CEO of Mersey operations Anthony Alicastro, this was a very different relationship. “The customer really wanted us to be the leader, to work in cooperation with them and deliver the [tolling] project. We put aside a sizeable budget to devise appropriate branding and work with the MGCB on the messaging. Jerome Couzineau, group CEO at Emovis, says this might be a first but he has now seen a number of smaller companies enquiring about what they describe as ‘complete tolling packages’. Many of these approaches are prompted by the fear of losing, or at least not collecting, the toll revenue when moving to free-flow tolling and the realisation that skilful communications and persuading users to register is key to preventing revenue loss.
One of the key issues for both the council and Mersey ow was establishing an equitable tolling architecture to retain local support while ensuring enough revenue to cover the contractual payments. According to Fearnhead: “Emovis’ experience was vital in knowing what worked in other areas and, as importantly, what didn’t work so well and how to put together an appropriate public awareness and information campaign before the bridge opened.”
Establishing a customer centre in Runcorn has provided more than 200 local jobs (Images: Merseyflow)
Referencing the projected use of the bridges, the council decided on a standard toll of £2 per crossing and (in line with government guidelines) local residents who paid the annual £10 registered fee would be able to make 300 crossings per year. However, securing the project financing released an £86m capital grant from the UKDfT and the project came in under budget (see box), enabling the council to allow local residents unlimited crossings. Government-imposed socio-economic criteria also means that the 0.5% of residents who live in the borough’s most expensive housing do not qualify for the concession.
‘Blue Badge’ holders, motorcycles and local buses qualify for free crossings, while trucks between 3.5 and 12 tonnes pay £6 and heavier vehicles are charged £8. Registering for video-based charging attracts a 5% discount and double that for vehicles using the RFID windscreen stickers. Local business vehicles (including taxis) have to pay the tolls but can purchase a £90 monthly unlimited use pass (£60 for off-peak only). Non-registered users can pay on-line or at one of 10,000 pay zones across the UK.
Toll revenue can be used only to repay the debt and in terms of traffic volume, 65,000 vehicles a day are expected to use the new bridge with 20% being residents doing local journeys wholly within the borough. A further 40% of journeys will start or end in the borough and 40% will be through traffic. Inflation indexing is included in the toll fee structure and the fees are subject to annual review but it is expected to be three years before any changes are made.
In operation, Emovis designed and will operate the tolling and collection system. It then pays the revenue directly to Halton Borough Council which in turn pays a unitary charge to Merseylink and Merseyflow.
Not only does the tolling contract cover the new bridge but also the existing Silver Jubilee Bridge. This combination of all electronic free-flow tolling and imposing tolls on an existing structure meant there was a considerable amount of public information and ‘winning hearts and minds’ required ahead of the opening.
A public information campaign was devised to get the message across that both bridges were to be tolled and why, to tell users how they could pay and encourage them to register. This included local print, radio and television as well as a mobilefriendly website, social media and face-toface meetings with both the public and user groups. The website went live 10 months before the bridge opened with information for potential users, and with three months to go online registration opened as did the call and the walk-in centres. At its peak up to 1,000 windscreen stickers a day were being dispatched and there were already more than 80,000 registered users (resulting in £1m being passed to the council) before a single vehicle had crossed the bridge. More than 60% of users registered online.
After a 3.5 year construction phase and a sustained public information and marketing campaign, the bridge opened in the early hours of Saturday 14 October. At the same time the Silver Jubilee Bridge was closed for up to a year for deck recon guration (back into a single lane in each direction with the remainder of the deck space to be used for improved cycling and walking facilities) and long-overdue refurbishment.
Time savings run upwards of 10 minutes – potentially to an hour or more - and journey reliability has been vastly improved. Once the reconfiguration of the Silver Jubilee Bridge has finished, the MGCB will continue to monitor the performance of the bridge and tolling operation.
Renegotiating the tolling contract at the end of the seven-year agreement will provide an opportunity to re-evaluate the equipment employed and review the operation to date – something which all parties see as positive.