Large toll increases in prospect at UK's Dartford Crossing
- by David Crawford, London: Sunday (30 Oct 2011) was the 20th birthday of the UK's Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, built to carry southbound traffic over the tolled Dartford Crossing that links the two arms of the M25 London Orbital motorway (beltway in Americlish) across the River Thames, 26km (16 miles) east of the centre of London. Its completion allowed the previously bidirectional twin bores of the Dartford Tunnel, completed in 1963 and 1980, to switch entirely to carrying northbound traffic and thus double the capacity of the crossing.
The four-lane structure, designed and built by Cleveland Bridge UK with German engineer Helmut Homberg, was the largest cable-stayed bridge in Europe.
Some 150,000 vehicles now use the crossing - bridge plus tunnel - each day.
Sunday users were waiting for details from the UK Department for Transport (DfT) of details of a new toll regime. The crossing is an important source of revenue - presently annual revenues of GBP40 million ($64m).
The word is that from April 2012, tolls could increase by as much as 67%. Current charges to use the crossing between 0600hrs and 2200hrs (no tolls apply overnight) are GBP1.50, $2.40 (see table nearby for other vehicle class tolls).
Residents of the towns on either side enjoy discounts, as do user of DART-Tag transponders (currently the only alternative to cash payment).
There is huge opposition to the planned toll increases. The South East [England] Local Enterprise Partnership claims "devastating effects" on businesses already suffering from recession. It wants to see geographically wider local discounts and larger ones for DART-Tag holders, the guaranteed continuance of free overnight crossing, and moves to tackle congestion.
In response to congestion complaints, the Highways Agency (HA) - which runs the English motorway and trunk road network for the DfT - is exploring the business case for introducing free-flow tolling, using automated numberplate recognition (ANPR) cameras, by end-2013.
Trial of suspending tolls in severe conditions
Also it is running a six-month trial of to suspend tolls during emergencies including severe congestion - defined as an incident causing a tailback (backup, Americlish) of at least 19km (12 miles) in either direction and traffic speeds dropped below 16km/h (10mph).
Since the trial began July 2011 there has only been one suspension of tolls.. Malcolm Bingham, head of Road Network Management Policy at the Freight Transport Association, claims that there have been two more incidents that should have qualified in terms of the queue length trigger. While admitting this, the HA says its traffic speed criterion was not met.
On future tolls, Bingham wants to see an inflation-only rise in the DART-Tag rate, with higher increases for cash payment, to help reduce congestion at the plaza.
The Bridge was built under a pioneering private finance initiative (PFI) contract by the Cleveland Bridge-led Dartford River Crossing (DRC) joint venture, which funded its construction and took over responsibility for the residual debt from the twin tunnels.
This gave DRC a 20-year concession to collect tolls, with a provision that it could be ended earlier if debts were repaid and a specified maintenance fund established - a point reached by end-March 2002.
Some hoped at that point for an end to tolls and free rides.
But the UK's 2000 Transport Act provided for permanent road pricing (tolls) to manage traffic congestion and to fund improvements. Under this Act, a 2002 Order continued Dartford Crossing tolls under a new formula from Apr 1, 2003.
Whole of M25 concessioned out
In 2009, the HA awarded a 30-year design, build, finance and operate (DBFO) contract for the management and operation of the entire M25 network, including the Dartford Crossing, to Connect Plus (CP) a joint venture of UK construction and engineering companies Atkins, Balfour Beatty, Skanska and French-headquartered infrastructure services developer Egis Projects' subsidiary Egis Road Operation UK.
Connect Plus Services (CPS) has the operations and maintenance subcontract. CPS shareholders are the same but without Skanska.