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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 10:45 GMT
Tolls abolished for Skye Bridge
Car with flag
Motorists have been celebrating the end of the tolls
The Scottish Executive has abolished the controversial Skye Bridge tolls.

The government announced an end to the charges on Tuesday morning after it bought back the bridge from its private owners for 27m.

The deal to bring the tolls to an end was understood to have been brokered on Monday night and the last toll was paid as the announcement was made.

The charges had been in force since the span opened in October 1995 and were bitterly opposed by protesters.

The executive officially takes control of the bridge on 1 January from Skye Bridge Limited, which built the bridge under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal with the government.

The abolition of tolls sweeps away a source of deep division and genuine injustice
Nicol Stephen
Transport Minister

The exact figure the company will receive will not be known until then, when its final audited accounts are prepared.

However, according to the executive, if it had not bought out the bridge when it did, it would have had to provide a further 18m in subsidy and drivers would have had to pay a further 20m in tolls before the PFI contract ended in eight years time.

The 21 workers who collected the tolls from motorists will now lose their jobs.

Transport Minister Nicol Stephen announced an end to the tolls at about 0730 GMT at a press conference in Kyleakin, on the island side of the controversial crossing.

The Liberal Democrat MSP said: "This is a historic day for everyone on Skye.

'Genuine injustice'

"We made a commitment last year to end the tolls on Skye Bridge. Today that promise has been delivered.

"The abolition of tolls sweeps away a source of deep division and genuine injustice.

"Today we are sweeping away one of the last vestiges of the Conservative era, this first PFI contract that sought to put so much of the cost on to the local people of Skye and Lochalsh."

Scrapping the tolls has long been a priority for the Lib Dems and featured in the party's coalition pact with Labour.

Skye Bridge
The Skye tolls were brought to an end immediately by ministers

The Liberals said they wanted to end "the discredited tolling regime for the Skye bridge" by 1 January, 2005, and hinted in June that they would follow through on their pledge.

Party leader Jim Wallace told parliament the tolls would be abolished by the end of the year and negotiations began to put an executive-funded buy-out together.

William Easingwood, 59, a fisherman from Dunbar, was the first motorist to legally cross the bridge without paying on Tuesday.

He said: "I certainly feel better for it.

"The government has got the money to do this so I'm glad that they have."

Victory cheers

As Tuesday's announcement was made bridge officials covered the bridge bollards with bin bags, cashed up their floats and lowered the shutters down on the toll booths.

Motorists were initially confused as staff waved them through the bridge barriers without asking for payment but soon drivers could be heard sounding their horns and cheering as news of the changes filtered through.

Mr Stephen was joined by First Minister Jack McConnell to make the historic announcement.

Mr McConnell said: "This is the start of a new era for Skye.

"Instead of the bridge being a symbol of controversy, it can now be a symbol for growth and prosperity."

Despite the good news, the Scottish National Party claimed questions still remained about the Skye Bridge.

The first driver to cross the Skye Bridge for free after tolls were scrapped
The first toll-free driver has crossed the Skye Bridge

Transport spokesman Fergus Ewing said: "Will there be a public inquiry? And what about those people who have been convicted wrongly - will they be overturned?

"How much did the bridge actually cost and how much has been received over the last nine years in tolls?

"Isn't this the most expensive contract that has ever been in the history of PFI procurement in Scotland?"

The Skye Bridge was the first-ever PFI deal and since the five-minute crossing first opened it has caused much controversy.

The bridge was built by a commercial group led by the Bank of America and under the deal it used the charges to recoup its 39m costs.

Its tolls were based on the old ferry fares between the island and the mainland and as a result were the highest levied in Europe.

More than 100 people have been convicted for refusing to pay the tolls, some even ending up in prison.

We will organise a public celebration of this great victory for the community
Andy Anderson
Skat

Protesters claimed the tolls were unfair and too high and complained the owners had collected much more than it cost to build the bridge.

Local residents and campaigners are overjoyed at the victory

The general secretary of Skye and Kyle Against Tolls (Skat) action group Andy Anderson said: "Skat notes with great satisfaction that the toll imposed on our community has finally been abolished.

"This toll has seriously damaged our economy and undermined the principles of democracy.

"We will organise a public celebration of this great victory for the community."

Liberal Democrats MSPs John Farquhar Munro and Nicol Stephen with First Minister Jack McConnell
Liberal Democrats MSPs John Farquhar Munro and Nicol Stephen with First Minister Jack McConnell
However, despite the celebrations, for one protester the battle will carry on.

On hearing the good news, Robbie the Pict, a high-profile opponent of the scheme, vowed to fight on through the courts to clear protesters of any criminal convictions and expose the projects shortcomings.

Under an ongoing review into bridge tolls in Scotland the charges levied on the Erskine Bridge across the River Clyde will also be looked at.

The West Dunbartonshire bridge is owned by Scottish ministers and carries about 2,000 vehicles a day.

However, the executive said the implications of changing or removing tolls on other Scottish bridges were "more complicated" and required further consideration.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Residents celebrate end to the 'highest tolls in Europe'




SEE ALSO:
Bridge charge deal seems nearer
08 Dec 04 |  Scotland
Motorists attack bridge toll rise
07 Dec 04 |  Scotland
Skye Bridge tolls to be abolished
03 Jun 04 |  Scotland
Bridge protesters renewing fight
03 May 04 |  Scotland
Toll removal 'threatens ferries'
12 Jan 04 |  Scotland


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