Last week the Westminster Welsh Affairs Committee heard that most of the £77m tolls (which cost £15m a year to run and maintain, but generate a net revenue of £77m a year at today's prices) raised per year is currently being used to cover debts and that only maintenance and running costs would need to be covered after 2017. A potential big hint to the Committee that Severn Crossing tolls could be much cheaper once the concession to run them ends in 2017.
It was even suggested that tolls could fall to 20 to 30% of current levels. At the moment motorists fork out £5.50 for cars and up to £16.40 for HGVs. Just for the record since the Severn Crossing Plc took over the concession, they have spent £510m (1990 prices) between serving a debt on the existing crossing and building a new one. Over the period of the concession it is expected that the concession holders will raise £1bn in revenue (1989 prices).
The bridge tolls have become in a tax on jobs, a tax on commuters, a tax on growth and a tax on business in the south of Wales. Plaid Cymru's South Wales Central AM Chris Franks (back in June 2010) obtained figures under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed significant difference between the large amounts of money raised by Severn River Crossing plc from the toll, and the relatively small amount spent on treating the damage to the cables on the old crossing (M48).
Since 2006, some £15m has been spent on main cable work on the first Severn Crossing. The Highways Agency suggests that another £5.8m of repairs will take place over the next five years. Some £225,733,000 has been collected in bridge toll revenue since 2006. People may driven to wonder if they are going to get saddled with major work to maintain the bridges after the toll profits have been siphoned off by the concessionary company when the bridges are finally returned to public ownership in 2017.
Sadly just because something could happen does not mean that it will - I cannot for a moment imagine a Westminster Government forgoing this potential tidy little earner. One question that is yet to be answered is come 2017 who actually is going to own the bridge (or bridges)? The situation is potentially complex as the bridge (or bridges) sit on the border - with the toll on the newer bridge being collected in Wales, and the toll on the older bridge being collected in England. Will the bridge and the tolls simply revert back to the Department of transport?
Or does the National Assembly get a look in, by default? If the current tolls were halved then, what could be accomplished by using a percentage to cover maintenance of the bridge and using the remainder of the toll for ring fenced capital projects – such as new integrated transport systems, reopening railway lines, funding tram systems and investing in rail freight? This would be far more beneficial for all of us in Wales than the finance disappearing into the Westminster coffers or to bail out the bankers?