The Government has announced it will not extend the local user discount scheme on the two Runcorn-Widnes road bridges for motorists living in Cheshire West.
Both the new Mersey Gateway bridge and the existing Silver Jubilee Bridge will be tolled when the new bridge opens this autumn.
The standard toll rate will be £2 per one-way trip.
Now a written statement by parliamentary under-secretary for transport Andrew Jones MP has confirmed the Department for Transport (DfT) has ruled out free crossings for drivers in Halton’s neighbouring local authority areas of Cheshire West and Chester (CWaC), Liverpool, Knowsley, St Helens and Warrington.
He said the DfT’s decision followed a feasibility study that concluded there would be a risk of legal challenge were some council areas to receive free crossings and not others.
The total cost of extending the discount scheme to Cheshire West and Chester, Warrington and the three neighbouring Merseyside areas of Liverpool, Knowsley and St Helens would cost an extra £604m to the public purse, he said.
Mr Jones said contracts had already been signed in relation to Halton and warned that a £377m chunk of the extra funding required would have to be paid for by those five local authorities.
The Government announced in 2015 that it would examine the feasibility of extending Mersey Gateway bridge toll discounts for CWaC and Warrington drivers.
The then-chancellor George Osborne had already revealed in 2014 that Halton residents would be able to cross for free, pending a small registration fee.
Halton’s discount and ultimately a package of free crossings for residents followed campaigning by residents and MPs who argued that it would be wrong to split the local authority area and bar residents from essential borough services with a toll.
Mr Jones’s announcement does not affect the existing Mersey Gateway and Silver Jubilee Bridge discount scheme for Halton.
He said: “The Government has already provided £86m to Halton to develop the scheme, to pay for land and to deal with land contamination.
"Once the scheme opens, the Government will also be providing a further substantial contribution of £288m to help fund both the cost of the bridge and also to increase the funds available to enable residents of Halton to use the bridge for free.
“It is Government policy that users of estuarial crossings should help pay for the benefits they receive.
“The Mersey Gateway is no different.
“As is the case with the Dartford Crossings, an exception is to be made for residents of Halton given that the existing Silver Jubilee Crossing is the only road link between the two halves of the Borough.
“Other users will have a range of frequent user discounts available to them to use a crossing that will deliver considerable congestion and journey time improvements to boost the region’s economy.
“In evaluating the options open to the Government we have considered a number of issues."
Mr Jones added: “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 £604m to the public purse.
“If, as is the case with Halton, the cost was to be split between the Government and local authorities, £377m would fall to the five local councils.
“For all these reasons we have taken the decision not to extend free tolling beyond Halton."
Any bridge users will be able to apply for £90 peak time monthly passes ( £1,080 a year) or £60 off-peak, or pay £5 to register for 10% discounted tolls (£1.80 a trip).