Frances Penwill-Cook: What stage is the Mersey Gateway Project at right now and is it running on schedule?

Steve Nicholson: The Mersey Gateway Project is waiting for planning approval from UK Central Government. A low-key public inquiry into the project was held locally in Widnes (a town in Cheshire, where the project will take place) in June/July 2009, but a delay in the government receiving the inspector’s report, combined with “purdah” [the pre-election period], the impact of the elections and a change of government has meant the original schedule is now being pushed back a little. It is difficult for us to give definitive timetables until we have some clear indication from the new Government as to what it wishes.

We anticipate, however, that construction will start during 2012 and the public opening is therefore likely to be 2015. The project had strong regional, national and cross-party support prior to the general election, and we strongly believe that the approach we have taken for this project, which provides high value for money under Department for Transport guidance (it will be the catalyst for job creation and inward investment as well as addressing traffic and congestion issues), will find favour with the new government. We’re lobbying for a decision as quickly as possible on its future.

The proposed procurement will establish a design, build, finance and operate contract with a private sector partner – DBFO Company. It will be for DBFO Company and its subcontractors to determine the construction programme, but the completion of the cable-stayed bridge forming the new river crossing will be on the critical path. We expect this to take a minimum of three years to compete, and work on the construction of foundations for the bridge towers will be a priority.

“A key barrier to regional growth has been a weakness in connectivity across the North West.”

FPC: How will the toll system be built and why is it necessary?

SN: The existing free-to-use Silver Jubilee Bridge, which links the two towns of Runcorn and Widnes (both lie within the borough of Halton), carries over 80,000 vehicles a day. It was originally designed to carry fewer than 10,000.

It is the only river crossing on the strategic road network for 20 miles between the Mersey Tunnels and the M6 Thelwall Viaduct, and is badly in need of updating and improvement.

Only 20% of traffic crossing the bridge starts and finishes its journey within Halton, which highlights its position as a crucial transport gateway for the Liverpool city region and north Cheshire.

A key barrier to regional growth has been a weakness in connectivity across the North West, with a particular focus on a lack of capacity in the road network around Halton. The Mersey Gateway will transform road transport by relieving the Silver Jubilee Bridge bottleneck with a modern high-standard crossing that will be congestion free for the next 40 years and more. The toll collection system in the current design (the reference design) is based on barrier control, but Halton is proposing to include provisions in the operating contract for a move to open-road tolling at some stage in the 30-year operating term. These provisions will be the outcome of contractual negotiation during the procurement process.

FPC: Can you talk about some of the infrastructure investment that needs to be paid off, the total cost of the project and when you expect ROI to be seen?

SN: The overall capital investment for this project will be over £600m, and over two thirds of this will be funded through toll charges. The public sector investment is in the form of government grants and private finance initiative (PFI) credits. The grant will fund the acquisition of land, including compensation payments where land is to be acquired using compulsory purchase powers.

Under the proposals, both the new bridge and the existing Silver Jubilee Bridge will be subject to tolls and charges.

“The overall capital investment for this project will be over £600m.”

The PFI credits will enable Halton to offer an operating contribution to supplement toll revenue so that the project can be delivered keeping toll charges down. The aim is to operate toll charges at levels similar to the nearby Mersey Tunnels (a car trip costs £1.40). The project revenue will need to be sufficient to service a private finance debt of circa £500m, and the debt is expected to be repaid over 25 years.

FPC: How much time, fuel and money could this bridge save both the local economy and the local and national travellers accessing it, and how did these figures come about?

SN: It is important for us that this project delivers much more than transport-related benefits. Our independent research, in the form of a wider economic impact report from specialist consultants Amion, has shown it could be the catalyst for a 20-year period of regeneration that will:

  • create more than 4,500 new jobs across the region
  • generate an estimated £61.9m a year in gross value added from the new jobs by 2030
  • establish reduced and reliable journey times across the area, which adds up to over £1bn in time and operating benefit over the contract term
  • support the sustained growth at Liverpool ports and Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

Benefits will also be extended into other areas. For example, tolling will help us manage future traffic levels resulting in an overall reduction in carbon emissions, and it will allow us to modify the existing Silver Jubilee Bridge to give priority to public transport, cycling and walking across the river between Runcorn and Widnes, all of which are severely compromised by the current congested conditions. We also intend to create a special Mersey Gateway nature reserve along the river corridor and clean up substantial areas of contaminated land.

“Tolling will help us manage future traffic levels resulting in an overall reduction in carbon emissions.”

This economic, environmental and social regeneration simply won’t happen with inadequate infrastructure and no investment.

FPC: Can you explain some of the political difficulties and problems surrounding getting approval for the Gateway Project?

SN: The research on and justification for this project goes back many years – far longer than I’ve been involved as project director – and the message from business, residents and commuters has been very clear: a new crossing is badly needed in this area.

That clear and compelling need for a new crossing has always been the driver behind the project, but the message from Government in recent years – from well before the credit crunch – has been very clear in that this was not going to be an entirely public-funded project. With this in mind, we have been very open and honest with people locally about the need for tolls as time has developed, and while our research unsurprisingly showed that people in the community would prefer a free-to-use bridge, they would rather have a tolled bridge than no new bridge at all.

There has been some opposition, which is inevitable on any project of this size, but interestingly no one has been saying “we don’t need a new bridge”, and those concerns we have had, which largely melted away at the time of the public inquiry, have been focused on very local issues, like the location of particular access routes rather than the concept of the project.

At a political level we have benefitted from and worked hard to maintain a cross-party and cross-region consensus in support of Mersey Gateway. This has been crucial, and the leadership shown at the very top from within the council has been vital to maintaining this over the long period of time we have been working towards where we are today.

This openness, clear vision and leadership and coalition-building has been vital to negotiating our way through to this stage, but we’ve also recognised that tolls will have an impact on local people and we’re actively investigating the best way to provide discounts to groups such as local people and regular users.

FPC: What are some of the other challenges on the project that you’ve faced as project director and how were they overcome?

SN: Together with my colleagues at Halton Borough Council and partners across the north-west of England, we’ve collectively worked very hard to overcome a range of obstacles, but the political and community backing behind the project has meant there has been a real will to succeed.

The sheer size and complexity of this project has been an issue in itself. We had to lodge two separate planning applications and five separate legal orders, including listed building consent, all of which were considered together at the public inquiry.

“The reference design delivers a striking structure that will become a landmark for the region.”

The logistics of this project are immense – it is much more than just a new bridge as it brings social, environmental, economic and travel benefits to Halton and the wider North-West region.

From a more technical and engineering perspective, some of our main challenges have been to design a scheme that satisfies the environment constraints in a sensitive estuary while keeping the project affordable. The reference design delivers a striking structure that will become a landmark for the region. Gifford, the scheme designers, should be proud of their work.

Looking forward, our most immediate task is obviously to secure planning and financial approval from Government at the earliest possible opportunity, but beyond that we have a complex procurement process to work through. We have already had expressions of interest from major multi-national consortiums that are interested in working with us, and also the more practical challenge of keeping local people and commuters in the area informed about what is happening and when and how it will impact on them on a day-to-day level as we move into a construction phase. If we get the approvals we need during the summer then the formal procurement process would commence by the end of the year.