As a result of a significant financial shortfall caused by the impact of Covid 19 and ongoing reduction in traffic levels on the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferries, members of the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry Joint Committee have agreed to carry out initial public consultation on proposals to revise tolls to secure the financial future of the two crossings.
Between them the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry carry around 18 million vehicles a year (16 million on the bridge and 2 million on the ferries), with the two crossings recognised as uniquely important to the economy of the region. The Tamar Crossings are almost entirely funded by toll income, as stated in legislation, which is used to operate, maintain and improve the bridge and ferries.
Before the coronavirus pandemic tolls were not expected to increase before 2023. However, traffic levels at both crossings remain significantly below those recorded prior to the pandemic and are expected to remain so for some years. A proposal to increase tolls last Autumn was deferred in December 2020 following financial COVID support from the Government. This support has now ended, with no prospect of any additional external funding.
The organisation’s reserves are forecast to be completely depleted during 2022, and Tamar Crossings are facing a significant and growing financial deficit unless there is intervention to increase income. The latest figures forecast an annual funding gap of £3.2m by March 2024, with an accumulated reserve deficit of £6.9m by March 2025.
The crossings over the Tamar are crucial to local residents and businesses, as well as to people visiting Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall. We recognise that any decision to increase tolls, particularly at this time, will have a big impact on local people but we are facing unprecedented financial challenges and need to ensure that we have funding to continue to deliver these services.
During the past 12 months we have looked in detail at all areas of spending, including staffing, and a range of options to address the financial shortfall. In July we wrote to the Government requesting that National Highways (formerly Highways England) contribute towards the costs of maintaining the Bridge. Unfortunately the Minister chose not to accept this request.
In accordance with the Tamar Bridge Act, both crossings are funded on a “user pays” principle which means that our only source of revenue is toll charges. As traffic is still less than 90% of pre Covid levels, without ongoing funding support from the Government the only current viable option to secure the future of the crossings is to revise tolls. “As a result we have instructed officers to begin local consultation to seek the views of people using the crossings on a 30% increase on both tag and cash tolls for all users.
60% of drivers using the crossings currently enjoy 50% discount and more convenience by pre-payment using the organisation’s TamarTag service. This proposal would mean that the car toll charge for TamarTag customers would rise from £1.00 to £1.30 – equating to an extra £1.50 per week for a TamarTag car user crossing five times a week. For those paying by cash the car toll would rise from £2.00 to £2.60.
Consultation will take place in January 2021, with the results reviewed by members of the Joint Committee before a decision is made on whether to go forward with the proposed changes.
We understand that any proposal to reluctantly revise prices will be unwelcome, but it is vital to ensure the future of the two crossings. The additional revenue will address the shortfall in income and provide funding to maintain current service levels and carry out further essential works on both the bridge and the ferries into the future. We have had to base the proposal on forecast traffic levels which presents some risk, and we will still need to continue closely monitoring the situation. We have kept the proposed increase as low as possible while still ensuring the quality and sustainability of the service into the future. Even with the proposed increase the crossings would still be amongst the cheapest self-financed major tolled crossings in the UK.
Councillors at today’s meeting also supported the appointment of an independent consultancy to carry out a review of the effectiveness, efficiency and governance of Tamar Crossings to inform, amongst other things, a long-term pricing strategy that will reflect the need to manage future demand and support the wider climate change agenda.
With a growing change in lifestyles due to more home working and increasing numbers of residents opting to travel by public transport in response to climate change, it seems wrong to be encouraging more carbon burning crossings to earn our revenue . In the future we will be looking to consider ways of using emerging technologies to encourage the use of zero carbon emission forms of transport.
Members also endorsed a recommendation for specialists to review land use and potential commercial opportunities on Tamar Crossings sites.