Bonus for drivers as toll bridge becomes a freeway

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The Independent Online

Hard-pressed motorists, feeling victimised by rising fuel prices, higher car insurance and increased road tax, do not often get something for nothing. But thousands of commuters using one of Scotland's four toll bridges received a rare bonus on Friday after a legal blunder by the Scottish Executive meant the crossing was free for the first time in 30 years.

Hard-pressed motorists, feeling victimised by rising fuel prices, higher car insurance and increased road tax, do not often get something for nothing. But thousands of commuters using one of Scotland's four toll bridges received a rare bonus on Friday after a legal blunder by the Scottish Executive meant the crossing was free for the first time in 30 years.

An administrative oversight meant that necessary legislation needed to continue collection of the toll charges on the Erskine Bridge across the river Clyde, west of Glasgow, had not been renewed when it expired on 2 July. With the realisation that the bridge had been operating illegally for two months, Scotland's Transport Minister, Sarah Boyack, was forced to waive the 60p each-way charge until emergency legislation could be brought in.

As the toll booths on the bridge remained manned as normal on Friday, startled motorists were waved through free while an investigation was carried out into the "deeply unfortunate" blunder.

The Executive collects around £5m annually from the bridge and critics calculated that the two months the bridge was operating without the necessary legal legislation meant that about £800,000 had been collected illegally.

Ms Boyack said there would be no refunds for motorists who paid tolls from 2 July until the suspension, but promised there would be a full inquiry and steps taken to make sure it did not happen again.

"I immediately pulled the tolls off the Erskine Bridge last night and we are putting in place legislation in Parliament next week that will cover us for the whole of the period after the expiry of the toll," she said on Friday. "It should not have happened. But in the meantime I have removed the toll on the bridge until we get that legislation in place, which should be within days," she said.

About 8.3 million cars a year cross the Erskine Bridge, which opened in 1971 with a statutory power to levy tolls for 20 years. The legislation then had to be reviewed every five years, as it was in 1991 and 1996.

Opposition parties condemned the situation as a example of the Executive's "gross incompetence".

"If the government cannot even run Scotland's bridges, a matter of simple administration, how can they be trusted to run the rest of Scotland properly?" said Andrew Wilson, the Scottish National Party's transport spokesman.

Neil Greig, the Automobile Association's head of motoring policy for Scotland, said the organisation would be asking the Executive to consider giving motorists free travel on the Erskine Bridge for two months.

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