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Hopes rise for refinancing of the Humber Bridge – and lower tolls

Two bidders are ready to pay £100 million, plus major debts write-off. But meanwhile cars will cost 30p more than the current £2.70 from the end of this week

Beautiful but expensive, the Humber Bridge may face a change in its fortunes later this autumn.

Although tolls go up on Saturday to a record £3 a car, there is growing optimism on both banks that radical change could follow in November.
The Treasury is expected to announce whether the long financial laming of the 2.2km (1.37 miles) crossing will end with the writing-off of £223 million of debt and sale to one of two rival bidders.

These are the existing Humber Bridge board and a chartered surveyor from Hull, Malcolm Scott, who both claim that they would cut tolls dramatically. At the moment, levels are so high – four axle lorries weighing over 7.5 tonnes will pay £20.30 from Saturday – that drivers are tempted to do the relatively modest hairpin via the M62 crossing of the Humber at the top of the estuary.

Business, unions, councils and MPs in both Yorkshire and Lincolnshire have argued for years that reducing or abolishing tolls would give the region a shot in the arm worth over £1 billion. The alternative appears to be limping along between regular toll rises when the Sisyphus task of meeting payments on the £323 debt falls behind.

That prompted the latest rise, when the board which runs but does not own the bridge, based its case on the danger of falling £2.2 million behind on debt and interest repayments. In simplistic financial terms these are on their way to paying the original debt for the fourth time.

The board and Scott have just presented their cases to the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership, giving details of the arguments which the Treasury is pondering. Both are offering to buy the bridge for £100 million with the £232 debt write-off as part of the deal. Scott told the LEP he envisaged reducing the car toll to £1 while the board foresaw a cut to £2.50 next April and £1.50 by 2020, with the heaviest lorry fare down to £12.50 that year. The current tolls are the most expensive in the UK.

The bridge has a wonderful history in both engineering and political terms, the latter even including a bit part by the Guardian. Approval for the crossing was given by the then transport secretary Barbara Castle just before a crucial by-election in Hull in 1966. Among the candidates was the paper’s journalist Richard Gott whose celebrity was thought to be a threat to Labour’s vote. In the event, his Radical Alliance polled 253 against Labour’s 24,479 and a Tory challenge was easily held off.

John Clugson, interim Chair of the Humber LEP Board says of the latest financial moves:

At a time of economic instability, when Hull and the Humber is trying to attract industry and commerce to the region, it is important that an economic factor such as a bridge toll does not detract from the other advantages of locating in the region.
We hope to discuss the proposals in more detail when we meet with HM Treasury next month.

Local MPs recently met Treasury officials and Scunthorpe’s Nic Dakin said afterwards:

They are now close to finalising the modelling of how the bridge would change in terms of usage according to different levels of tolls, which is important in understanding how changes would impact on other roads. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds