New Forth road bridge defies Royal Commission

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The Independent Online
THE Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang, is expected to give the go-ahead before the end of the year to a new road bridge across the Firth of Forth, in contradiction of recommendations published last week by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

The pounds 250m bridge, to be built alongside the existing road and rail crossings north-west of Edinburgh, is designed to be the biggest privately funded infrastructure project since the Channel Tunnel. It will be accompanied by another pounds 100m of road building to cope with the resulting traffic.

Meanwhile, as reported in last week's Sunday Review, painting of the 104-year-old Forth rail bridge has been stopped for lack of money. Analysts say that the plans to build an expensive new road crossing, while the rail link is being left to rust, neatly encapsulate the Government's approach to private and public transport. Ministers have rejected proposals to look at an alternative public-transport strategy that would make greater use of the under-exploited rail bridge.

The plans have split the Scottish Labour Party, but both supporters and opponents of the new bridge say that it will provide an early test case of whether ministers will pay serious attention to the Royal Commission's findings.

The commission report, published on Wednesday, calls for a halving of the Government's pounds 19bn road programme and almost trebling the use of public transport by 2025. It concludes, as does an official (but as yet unpublished) Department of Transport study, that building new roads generates more traffic rather than relieving congestion.

Traffic on the existing road bridge has increased from fewer than five million vehicles a year to 18 million since it was opened in 1964. The Scottish Office, which is pushing vigorously for the new bridge, says that massive traffic jams will develop unless it is built. Mr Lang's agreement for a formal go-ahead for the project is expected by the year end.

Opponents say that the plans are driven more by party politics and free-market ideology than by any need for the bridge. They say that the Government is desperate to get a private-sector transport project off the ground, and that it hopes to reduce its vast unpopularity in Scotland, which has been worsened by the decision to close the Rosyth dockyard.

They say the bridge is uniquely attractive to private investors because it will have a captive market of commuters to Edinburgh who moved across the Forth to Fife when the first road bridge was built. They will be able to make good profits by charging high tolls and, if the new crossing attracts more traffic, this will swell their takings.

Alistair Darling, a Labour Treasury spokesman who represents Edinburgh Central, says that most of the traffic across the existing road bridge is people travelling to and from work in Edinburgh and its environs, and he is convinced that a new crossing would increase it. He says he is very worried about rising levels of asthma among children in the city, and that the planned bridge would make pollution and congestion worse.

He is not mollified by government proposals to build more roads in the area to cope with increased traffic, describing them as wasting money to alleviate a problem that should not be created in the first place.

'There is a perfectly good rail bridge that is grossly under-used,' Mr Darling said. 'At the very least, ministers should look at a rail-based alternative to their plans, but they have refused to do so.'

David Begg, a transport economist at Napier University who chairs the Lothian Regional Council's transportation committee, says: 'This issue goes right to the heart of transport policy in Britain. The Government is not taking any cognizance of the reports that are coming out day after day showing that simply investing in building roads will not solve the problem.'

Lothian council has produced an alternative plan to raise tolls on the existing road bridge from 40p to pounds 1.50 and use the extra revenue to improve public transport, increasing travel over the rail bridge, re-opening the freight-only Edinburgh suburban railway to passengers, and building a new bridge at Kincardine, near the head of the Firth, to improve north-south transport links.

But Labour councils and MPs on the other side of the Forth support the Tory plan even though official party policy is for a moratorium on all new road schemes and for cuts in the roadbuilding programme. They point out that Fife already had the highest unemployment rate in mainland Scotland even before the closure of Rosyth, and say they need a new bridge to attract investment and jobs.

John MacDougall, leader of Fife Regional Council, said: 'The Royal Commission's report is useful, but it does not solve our problems. The bridge is really important to us.'

But he is worried that high tolls on the bridge may discourage industry and hit commuters, and joins his counterparts on the south bank of the Firth in demanding a full public inquiry into the plans.

(Photograph omitted)