WARRINGTON'S motorists will have to pay to cross the new Mersey Gateway Bridge – despite being promised tolls would be scrapped to save them £1,080 a year.

Prior to the 2015 General Election, former Chancellor George Osborne made a pledge that motorists in Warrington and Cheshire West and Chester would have tolls waived.

Council bosses have pressed the Government on the matter ever since.

Eligible Halton residents will benefit from free crossings but today, Tuesday, parliamentary under secretary of state for transport, Andrew Jones, announced the discount scheme will not be extended to residents in Warrington and Cheshire West and Chester after all.

The six-lane bridge over the Mersey, between Runcorn and Widnes, will be tolled when it opens to traffic later this year, along with the existing Silver Jubilee Bridge.

The standard toll charge to cross either bridge will be £2 for a one-way trip in a car or a small van, with a discount pass for Warrington drivers set to be priced at £90 per month, amounting to £1,080 a year.

In his statement, Mr Jones confirmed the Department for Transport has taken the decision not to extend free tolling beyond Halton.

He said: "In 2015 the Government announced it would look at the feasibility of extending Mersey Gateway Bridge toll discounts to residents of Cheshire West and Chester and Warrington.

"The department has undertaken detailed work and evaluated options for how this could happen, what the costs would be and what this would do to the contracts already signed by Halton Borough Council (HBC) to deliver the scheme and the tolling infrastructure.

"The feasibility work considered the legal position and the costs to the taxpayer and concluded that free tolling will not be extended beyond HBC.

"On the legal side, the feasibility work showed there would be a significant risk of a successful legal challenge to a decision to extend free tolling to some local councils and not others.

"On the cost side extending free tolling to only a handful of local councils would still be at a substantial cost to the taxpayer.

"An extension of user discounts to not just Cheshire West and Chester and Warrington, as originally suggested, but also to the other three authorities that neighbour Halton – Knowsley, Liverpool City Council and St Helens – would be at an estimated cost of £604 million to the public purse.

"If, as is the case with Halton, the cost was to be split between the Government and local authorities, £377 million would fall to the five local councils."

Warrington Guardian:

David Mowat's Facebook post in April 2015. Read more here.

The announcement comes days after Warrington South MP David Mowat confirmed he was in discussions with Government figures over the matter.

He said: "Prior to the 2015 election, the then-Chancellor made a pledge that motorists in Warrington and Cheshire West, who live close to Runcorn or Widnes and who use the existing Runcorn Bridge regularly, would not have to pay tolls to use the new Mersey Gateway Bridge.

"For the last 18 months, officials at the Treasury and Department for Transport have been looking at how such a scheme might operate.

"I had hoped that a scheme outline was going to be included in the Autumn Statement.

"Unfortunately, two local authorities have now begun legal proceedings against the Government.

"If those authorities are successful, it will produce a massive increase in the number of drivers potentially eligible for the scheme and hence ballooning the costs.

"Those costs have to be weighed against other transport projects in the town – including the new high level bridge.

"I am now working with ministers and officials to put together a scheme, which will shield those drivers from Warrington who regularly use the bridge for work from the effects of the tolls.

"I hope to be in a position to offer some clarity soon."

Cllr Terry O’Neill is set to make a statement shortly but is understood to be extremely angry by the duplicity of the Government.

Nick Bent, Labour's Warrington South candidate in the 2010 and 2015 general elections, campaigned for the Government to scrap the tolls.

He has responded to today's announcement.

"This is a massive betrayal of Warrington motorists by Tory ministers and the Tory MP," he said.

"They made a promise two weeks before the General Election but have now blatantly broken it." 

"I said at the time it was an 'election stunt' and sadly I was right.

"Not only are the Tories trashing our local NHS and slashing education funding, they are also putting a big tax on driving to work." 

Mr Mowat has also responded.

He said: "For the last 18 months I have been working with ministers and officials to make a special case for Warrington.

"The new bridge will be less than a kilometre from the borough boundary and the original public inquiry showed that Warrington would be the worst-hit by drivers trying to avoid tolls.

"Unfortunately, other local authorities have tried to piggyback on this process and the legal opinion is that any scheme open to one neighbouring authority has to be open to all.

"£600 million is an eye-watering sum, especially when it could be used to subsidise all bridge users, not just those who use it regularly, and cannot be considered in isolation from other local transport priorities – particularly the construction of the two bridges in Warrington.

"I'm bitterly disappointed that the Government has not been able to deliver on this pledge but it has only encouraged me to redouble my efforts to campaign for the critical infrastructure improvements we need right here in Warrington, such as the new bridges and the new station in west Warrington."

There will be two main options for Warrington residents – just like anyone else who lives outside of Halton – to reduce toll costs.

A peak pass will cost £90 per month, with an off peak pass priced at £60.

The second option will be for motorists to register their vehicle with the tolling operator to receive up to 10 per cent off each trip, so a one-way trip would cost £1.80 instead of £2.

There will be a one-off £5 fee to register.

It is not possible to register yet but there will be further information and guidance published on the Mersey Gateway Project website later this year in advance of the new bridge opening.

However, the local user discount scheme offering free tolls for eligible Halton residents to cross both bridges remains unchanged.

David Parr, chief Executive of HBC and the Mersey Gateway Crossings Board said:

“"This morning's decision is a matter for the Government and it would be inappropriate for the project to comment.

"This announcement will have no impact on the previously agreed discount schemes available as part of the Mersey Gateway Project including the offer for eligible Halton residents, which will see unlimited free travel across both bridges for those registered subject to a £10 annual fee.

"The Mersey Gateway Project team and Merseylink are working hard to deliver the project within the legal, financial and contractual agreements that have been in place for some time.

"It is very much business as usual - the project construction is progressing well and we look forward to opening for traffic in autumn 2017."

For further information visit merseygateway.co.uk/tolls.

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