MERSEYTRAVEL was today facing mounting opposition to its bid to give itself powers to raise tunnel tolls.
Merseytravel want government legislation to be allowed to increase the tolls every three years in line with inflation and is asking for a relaxation of the laws governing the tunnels to would allow them to spend surplus money from the tolls on other transport services.
But a powerful forum of unions, businesses, MPs and motoring organisations have joined forces to oppose the Bill.
North-West TUC regional secretary Alan Manning, who is leading a major campaign against the Bill told the ECHO: "This is an unfair form of taxation against people who use the tunnels. It will damage local businesses, and it cannot be allowed to go through."
The bid is being made through the Mersey Tunnels Tolls Bill 2002, a private bill due to go to the House of Commons early in the New Year.
If passed, this would replace the 1980 Act governing the financing of the tolls.
The current act does not allow Merseytravel to spend toll money on anything other than the tunnels and ferries.
The proposed change would allow surplus tunnel revenue to go towards schemes like the proposed Liverpool trams network, subsidising bus routes, and maintaining bus shelters and train stations.
They want to see surplus cash spent on speeding up the settlement of the outstanding debt for the construction of the tunnels, currently standing at £113m. Then they hope tolls will be slashed by at least half.
As things stand, the debt will not be cleared until 2048.
The tunnels generate £30.6m-a-year, of which £14m goes on debt and interest repayments.
The rest goes on wages for 350 staff, including 90 tunnel police, and maintenance and repairs.
Opponents to the Bill say that it is an unfair tax on people who use the tunnels and could stifle trade on both sides of the river.
Alan Manning plans to petition Parliament, and has already led a North-West TUC team to Parliament to begin the process.
He argued: "This Bill will allow Merseytravel to hike up the tolls by at least the rate of inflation.
"At present that does not seem too bad, as inflation is running at a low rate of around 2-3%.
"But it's not that long ago that inflation was much higher. Can you imagine what the effect of 10% hikes in the toll would be?"
He added: "The proposals contained in the Bill will mean that, in effect, Merseytravel is putting an extra tax onto all the users of the tunnel.
"That is a tax on jobs and business which neither the Wirral nor the Liverpool side of the tunnels can afford.
"Merseytravel are trying to pretend that this Bill will have no significant effect. But that is far from the case.
"All of the unions working in the tunnels oppose it, many of the MPs in the Merseyside area do too, and I am sure that once people who use the tunnels become fully aware of the effect of this Bill they will share our anger."
Mr Manning added: "It would not be so bad if the extra money raised was going into improving the tunnels and paying off any debt charges that are still outstanding.
"I hope that there will now be a coalition of all those people and organisations in the Merseyside area who are opposed to this Bill to ensure that it does not become law."
Wirral MPs are also keen to block the Bill.
Andrew Miller, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, says people already believe they pay too much to travel to and from Liverpool.
He said: "The tunnels are a lifeline for people in Wirral, Ellesmere Port and Neston who have to travel through them to get to work and to attend leisure and social functions."
Mr Miller believes "the prospect should be" for declining tunnel charges if not their complete removal.
Wirral South MP Ben Chapman believes the Bill represents a "bad deal" for motorists, businesses and the people of Merseyside.
He said: "I am impeccably opposed to the Mersey Tunnels Bill.
"I do not believe that any proposals for increases in tunnel tolls can be regarded as anything other than an additional tax on the motorist and a burden on local businesses."
Wirral West MP Stephen Hesford also believes Merseytravel has "got it wrong".
He said: "This Bill is asking the people of Wirral to pay ever-increasing charges towards the use of the tunnels when part of the money which will be raised will be used for an entirely different purpose."
Birkenhead MP Frank Field, says he would not like to see any excess money after the tunnel debt has been paid being used for other transport initiatives. He believes this funding should be used to reduce tolls.
He does, however, support moves to raise tolls in line with inflation. Freight companies are outraged at the prospect of regular tunnel toll rises. The cost of driving a lorry of four wheel axles or more costs £4.80 compared with £1.20 for cars.
Merseytravel's Bill will allow them to spend money raised from toll increases on other transport schemes.
Hauliers believe they are subsidising transport for everyone else.
They demand that if tolls do have to rise, once the tunnels debt is paid charges should be scrapped, or at the very least greatly reduced.
Chris Fylan, Road Haulage Association area manager for Merseyside, said: "We feel it is unfair that freight and public transport should subsidise each other.
"If they want public transport it should be paid for by government money or passengers themselves.
"It was promised when the first tunnel was built that it would be free once it was paid for.
"We realise there must be a token toll to pay for its upkeep but Merseytravel should not be able to line its pockets with tunnel tolls money."
He also criticised the Merseytravel consultation process, saying: "We replied to the consultation document, which they seem to have ignored."
He pledged: "We will be lobbying local and national MPs against the Bill."
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