Sunday, 21 December 2008

Solving the problem

Toll collection at Swinford bridge causes many problems: time-wasting, unacceptable pollution, and an unfair extra local payment. It must be scrapped.

In an idea world, we'd all use the bus or bikes, but thousands cannot for very good reasons: such as they drive commercial vehicles; they carry children, animals or goods in their vehicles; or buses don't go to the place they need to. For all these people Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) must seriously start to consider the ways to solve the problems.

Here are some common sense ideas based on talking to other bridge-users and daily observations of the bridge daily since 1993. I don't mind how OCC choose to do it, just so long as the tolls are scrapped to allow traffic to move steadily and safely.

OCC should compulsorily purchase the bridge. The Act of Parliament (see below) which allows tolls to be collected doesn't mean tolls have to be collected.

However, if the problem is affording to purchase the bridge, tolls could be maintained temporarily. This could be for an agreed fixed period, say one year. The money raised would help pay for the purchase and necessary road improvements. It would effectively then be a temporary tax on those that use the bridge, which seems fair enough. After all if you want something you have to pay for it.

I'm convinced that most bridge users wouldn't mind if the toll was raised temporarily, on the condition that they we were promised that in the long-term tolls would be scrapped.

Steve Howell, Head of Transport at OCC recently said: "the County Council has looked into the proposal of purchasing the bridge and decided not to pursue this." Why not, Steve? Ten thousand bridge-users want to know!

Repeal or amend the Act of Parliament (AoP): “An Act for building a Bridge cross the River Thames, from Swinford, in the County of Berks, to Eynsham, in the County of Oxford”, 7 George III, c. 63. dated 1767 (Ref No HL/PO/PU/1/1767/7G3n22), which allows the bridge owner to collect tolls and makes the building of bridges across the river illegal for three miles either way up or down stream from Swinford.

Repealing or amending an AoP is not impossible. It was amended in 1994 to allow the owner to charge higher tolls, if you remember. Repeal it and the bridge owner can no longer charge tolls.

Easing the flow of traffic
Once the tolls are scrapped a number of things could happen to allow traffic to flow:

Build a short single lane road going east off the B4449 just north of the toll bridge roundabout by the allotments so that staff at the offices and workshops at Siemens/Magnets can get into work without getting tangled up in traffic going towards the bridge. Siemens may like to stump up some cash for this.

Install zero-tolerance speed cameras set to no higher than 20mph or possibly slower and slap in a couple of speed humps at either end of the bridge to ensure traffic crosses the newly toll-free bridge slowly but steadily. Speeding fines will help pay for the purchase of the bridge and necessary road improvements.

Impose width and weight restrictions. Not being a structural engineer I don't know what these should be but I suspect that 21st lorries should not be rattling over a glorious 240-year-old bridge constructed for horse-drawn vehicles.

Widen the internal carriageway by more than a foot - yes, there is room, I have seen it with my own eyes. A bus and a lorry can pass, albeit with caution. The extra width can be found by scrapping the silly and very dangerous pedestrian path from the bridge and then... a narrow bridge immediately next to the existing bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, just like the ones built in the 1990s alongside the bridge by St Frideswide's Church on Botley Road in Oxford. The new cycle/pedestrian bridge would follow exactly the line and contour of the toll bridge and fit sympathetically into its architectural style. Probably built of metal, it would be self supporting and would not interfere with the fabric of the toll bridge in any way.

And there must be lots of other practical, workable, safe ideas that promote steady flow of traffic.

Just don't give us traffic lights. There would be a riot!

Toll collection
And if the bridge is to remain a toll bridge until a 21st century solution can be found, then tolls must be collected more effectively to allow traffic to pass through steadily. As it is at the mo, some days I feel like handing the toll collector a tenner and saying: "Let the next 200 cars through gratis. My treat."

Automatic toll collection machines should be installed or electronic recognition equipment that scans a vehicle and bills the owner later. Or a prepay system that allows users to pay for say 500 crossings in one go, with a discount for bulk perhaps? Perhaps the present owner would consider installing these for us?

Allowing traffic to pass steadily across will reduce the emissions immediately to no more than any other road of comparable use.

Extra traffic
Anyone who says doing something will encourage more people to use the bridge ought to get real. This argument is designed to maintain the status quo and is inherently lazy and could even be perceived as even scare-mongering. The bridge is there to be used, for goodness sakes, and if it does encourage more people to use the bridge then their change of journey will have alleviated congestion elsewhere, won't it?

The bridge owner
OCC should compulsorily buy it from the owner for the greater good of the many bridge-users. A private owner should not be allowed to hold west Oxfordshire to ransom.

I don't know what the purchase price might be to compensate the owner, but I wonder if they'd like to compensate me for the time in my life they have stolen? Say x=95 minutes a week for y=16 years at say z=£25 per hour - you do the maths. Bridge-users: add your own figures for x, y and z.

Who pays?
At the moment we're paying in wasted time, in 5p coins and in the air we breathe. And any changes have to be paid for. Happily there are lots of creative ways of raising funds from central government, grants, trusts, donations, sponsorship, local individual fundraising and, as I have already suggested, temporary tolls. A combination of ways to raise the money should be thoroughly investigated.

The fairest way to raise the cash may be partly from bridge-users themselves using temporary tolls; after all, we're used to paying them. It might not be popular but it is fair, practical, predictable and - most of all - common sense.

Who can make it happen?
Ultimately, OCC's transport department is in charge. They need to understand that we bridge-users can tolerate no more nonsense and we want the toll bridge problem fixed, as part of the wider problem of transport in this area (the ancient Newbridge, the snarled up A40 and lack of river crossings generally). Perhaps they're working on it... If so perhaps they'd like to tell us?

Take action now!

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