Tunnel takes its toll

On the fiftieth anniversary of a new link under the Mersey, there remains concern about which side of the river benefits most – and tolls people pay

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Neither Gerry and the Pacemakers or anyone else ever recorded a song called Tunnel Under The Mersey. That may explain why this year’s 50th anniversary of one of the road links beneath the river has gone largely unsung.

Locally, there were some tributes to those who built it and the eight workmen who lost their lives in the process. Liverpool metro mayor Steve Rotheram described it as “an incredible feat of engineering that changed the Liverpool City Region forever”. Nationally, though, it barely registered.

The 1.5 mile Kingsway Tunnel was opened by the Queen in 1971 and constructed by BAM Nuttal, the same firm that built the famous Liver Building overlooking the Pier Head. To begin with it carried two lanes of traffic, but when that proved unable to cope with demand an adjacent two-lane tunnel was opened in 1974. Together they are known locally as the Wallasey Tunnel.

Running from the north side of the city centre they join Liverpool to the M53 motorway in Wirral. Around 16.4 million vehicles pass through the Wallasey each year.

It was built to relieve pressure on the Queensway Mersey Tunnel – now known by users as the Birkenhead Tunnel – which opened to traffic from the city’s south side at the end of 1933. Both tunnels have become as much a part of the fabric of life in the city as its riverfront. Across the Mersey on the Wirral peninsula, however, they have become a source of irritation for many people.

“One side, like Liverpool, has all the amenities while the other side tends to be a dormitory.”

In his group’s famous 1965 hit Ferry Cross the Mersey Gerry Marsden sang about “hearts torn in every way” by the ferry journey separating lovers and families. But these days the tunnels are more likely to trouble not hearts but purses and wallets. Currently the toll charges are £1.80 for a car, £3.60 for a large van and up to £7.20 for heavy goods vehicles. There are discounts for those who sign up for prepaid accounts.

“The tolls just aren’t fair,” said John McGoldrick, who fronts a pressure group called Scrap Mersey Tolls. “On both tunnels they were supposed to have been in operation for a limited period but they kept moving the goalposts until the tolls became a permanent fixture.”

McGoldrick lives at Greasby in Wirral and before retirement used the Birkenhead Tunnel to commute to his job as an accountant at Liverpool City Council. Besides being prime mover in Scrap Mersey Tolls he is one of the UK’s leading experts on toll tunnels and bridges. A decade ago he was involved in the successful campaign to have tolls removed from bridges in Scotland, including those across the River Tay and River Forth, and is currently involved in the opposition to tolls on a private bridge over the River Ouse near York.

“Tolls on tunnels and bridges discriminate against people who, for want of a better phrase, live on the wrong side of the tracks,” said McGoldrick. “Usually one side of the river is better off than the other. One side, like Liverpool, has all the amenities, such as jobs, specialist hospitals, colleges and big shops, while the other side tends to be a dormitory. People there have to pay to reach the amenities. In my view that is unfair.”

He is concerned about how tolls have now spread to cover bridge crossings over the Mersey too, with no toll-free way round the Mersey until Warrington 20 miles upstream. The Runcorn-Widnes Bridge, built in 1961 and renamed the Jubilee Bridge in the 1970s, instigated tolls last February in order to stop drivers using it for free instead of taking the newly opened toll-charging and privately built Mersey Gateway Bridge nearby.

“Motorists are already paying other taxes for roads such as vehicle excise duty, fuel tax and VAT on every litre at the pumps,” said McGoldrick. “And the flat-rate tolls are unfair because someone with a small car and not much money pays the same as someone driving a big car who’s got a lot of money”.

Recently the tunnel operator Merseytravel introduced video technology known as a T-Flow system with automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) capabilities at both tunnels in order to speed up the progress of users who pre-pay their journeys at a discount. Once payment is electronically approved the barrier rises to allow the tunnels to be entered. Cash and contactless payments will still be available.

However, a new ANPR-only system was introduced on 8 November at the Tyne Tunnel in the North East. Anyone using the tunnel has to pay by midnight that day or will face a fine. While there is no plan to fully adopt this system on the Mersey tunnels, McGoldrick fears that is just a matter of time.

“To enforce that you need penalties for those who don’t pay and what worries me is that it depends on people having their addresses updated with the DVLA in Swansea. In other places where the system is used drivers didn’t receive notifications of penalties and ended up owing thousands of pounds. We don’t want that on Merseyside.”

A Merseytravel spokesperson told Big Issue North that the tunnels are an essential part of the city region’s road network and were originally built as a joint venture by the local authorities. Since their upkeep and maintenance remain outside the national highway network they are not funded through road tax or other tax. Millions are spent on operating and maintenance each year, with the amount rising as the tunnels age.

“There is no national road tolling strategy and the government has no plans to bring the Mersey tunnels into the national road network. Without a funding commitment from central government tolls will always be necessary.”

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