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Mersey Gateway: Fireworks launch for new £600m bridge

fireworks at bridge Image copyright Mersey Gateway Project
Image caption The bridge between Runcorn and Widnes opened after midnight

A fireworks and lights show has heralded the opening of a new £600m toll bridge over the River Mersey.

Expected to cost £1.9bn until 2044, the Mersey Gateway route is the largest infrastructure project in England outside London, a spokesman said.

The bridge between Runcorn and Widnes in Cheshire opened after midnight.

The government said tolls would be dropped once the costs were paid but campaigners said the charges would hit residents and local businesses.

Image copyright Mersey Gateway Project
Image caption The Mersey Gateway route is the largest infrastructure project in England outside London

Building work on the six-lane bridge, which is the second crossing between Runcorn and Widnes, began in 2014.

The 1.5-mile (2.2km) link forms the centrepiece in a project of improvements on a 9.2km route in the borough of Halton.

The total cost of the route - including construction, maintenance and operation - is estimated to be £1.9bn until 2044, a spokesman for the Mersey Gateway Project said.

Hugh O'Connor, general manager at Merseylink, added the bridge was "opening on time and on budget" and paid tribute to those "who worked so hard to make that happen".

Officials hope it will ease congestion on the nearby Silver Jubilee Bridge while improving access to jobs and Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

Image copyright Mersey Gateway Project
Image caption Construction work on the second link between Runcorn and Widnes started in 2014

However, many locals have criticised the toll's impact. Halton resident Jodie Fisher said: "Runcorn isn't a destination town. I worry we won't get that investment and it will become a ghost town."

Davina Morrell, a single mother who works in Liverpool, said: "I'm going to have to pay £700 a year to travel over the bridge. It's an awful lot of money when I'm only a nurse."

David Parr, chief executive of Halton Borough Council, said: "We had a congested bridge and the government were saying to us, 'if you want to reduce that congestion you need to have a toll crossing - toll bridge or no bridge'."

The government, which approved the project in 2006, said it had already paid £86m and would provide £288m after the opening.

Its contribution will make up 20% of the cost while the remaining 80% is being funded by tolls, a Mersey Gateway Project spokesman said.

For whom the bridges toll

Image copyright Mersey gateway Project
Image caption The Silver Jubilee Bridge (top) and the Mersey Gateway Bridge will be tolled
  • Eligible residents in Halton can cross the Mersey Gateway Bridge and Silver Jubilee Bridge for a £10 annual fee
  • Other drivers will have to pay tolls and must register on the official Merseyflow site to get discounts or free travel
  • More than 82,000 vehicles have been registered but motorbikes and local buses will not be tolled
  • Drivers can still cross both bridges without registering but will have to pay the full toll, ranging from £2 to £8 a crossing, or face a penalty of up to £60
  • There will not be any toll booths as number plate recognition technology will be used to collect payments

In a statement, a Department for Transport spokesman said the tolls were no different from the funding of the second Severn Crossing in the 1990s. Tolls on the Severn bridges will be scrapped by the end of 2018.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: "When the [Mersey Gateway] bridge is paid for, the tolls go."

Tolls will also be implemented on the old Silver Jubilee Bridge - known locally as the Runcorn Bridge - once it reopens next year after repairs.

It is closed to drivers for about 12 months so it can be "restored... to its original function as a local bridge with improved public transport and cycling/pedestrian provision", a Department of Transport spokesman said.

The crossing remains open to cyclists and pedestrians.

Campaigners against the tolls intend to hold demonstrations at Runcorn Town Hall and in Widnes on Sunday afternoon.

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