It's the end of free travel over the river when new bridge opens this weekend
Unlucky for some, Friday the 13th has been chosen as the day free travel across the River Mersey finally comes to an end.
The new Mersey Gateway bridge, between Widnes and Runcorn, opens, with cars having to pay up to £2 each way to cross the river and up to £8 each way for larger goods vehicles.
People in Liverpool wanting to travel over the water without paying a tunnel or bridge toll would face a round trip of over 40 miles to reach the first free crossing at Bridgefoot in Warrington.
Car-owning residents in Halton have qualified for free crossings, if they register and pay £10 a year. And that's only so long as they live in council tax bands A-F.
Everyone else, including taxis, will have to pay a toll by phone or by registering and paying on a dedicated website - there are no booths - with stiff penalties for those who fail to cough up within 24 hours.
The French-Spanish firm that operates the London Congestion charge has installed cameras on the bridge to register details of all vehicles. This avoids the need for booths, but means those who forget to pay on time will be fined.
Motorists not paying the toll by midnight on the day after travelling will be given a penalty ticket of £40, reduced to £20 if paid within 14 days, but with the costs rising even more after that and eventual civil court action for non-payers.
Almost 20,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to enable free tolls for all, supported by campaigners who also want Mersey tunnel tolls abolished. There is even talk of some protests on or around the bridge to highlight the issue.
What has angered campaigners is that a look-alike bridge across the Forth, near Edinburgh, was opened a few weeks ago, with no toll charges - in line with the Scottish government’s policy of abolishing all tolls north of the border.
Some local companies have warned that the higher toll charges for goods vehicles will drive them out of town, or out of business.
Free crossing across the Mersey was introduced in 1961 with the opening of the Silver Jubilee Bridge - aka the landmark Runcorn Bridge.
The new “Mersey Gateway” has been built because of the traffic load on that bridge, nearing 100,000 vehicles a day. An accident on the existing bridge, or even a vehicle breakdown at peak periods, has long caused massive gridlock and delays, leading to a decision by Halton Council, now part of the Liverpool City Region, to aim for a new crossing.
With the government refusing to fund it, the council opted for a deal that has seen the bridge funded mainly by the private sector, with the tolls used to pay off the cost. The final bill, for a bridge that cost less than £500m to build, will approach almost £2 billion.
Just to rub salt into the wounds, a report emerged revealing that seven directors serving on the Mersey Gateway Crossing Board had received £400,000 in emoluments over two years. Among them are the leader of Halton Council, Rob Polhill, and the deputy leader, Dave Wharton, as well as the council’s chief executive, Dave Parr. Cllr Polhill has now revealed that he and his deputy each received £5, 553 a year after tax for their roles on the board.
It has all sparked outrage among regular commuters who don't live in Halton who will now find that the cheapest way across the river in peak times is to buy a £90 monthly pass - adding up to over £1,000 per year at a time when household finances, for many, are increasingly strained.
The chief executive revealed he receives £7,944 after tax, for serving on the board. The board was set up as a non-profit “special purpose vehicle” to oversee the management of the bridge project.
The familiar Runcorn Bridge will be closed to traffic once the new bridge opens, and when it re-opens, in about a year, it will also be tolled.
To lift the gloom of having to pay rather more than "twopence to cross the Mersey", the council is organising a fireworks display and light show on Friday night, staring around 8-30pm. Oh, and the tolls kick in the moment the new bridge opens at midnight.