About £1m worth of fines have been issued to motorists using the Mersey Gateway Bridge in its first month of operation.
Toll operators Merseyflow have confirmed that about 50,000 penalty charge notices (PCNs) were dished out in the first four weeks following the opening of the bridge on October 14.
Motorists have until midnight the day after their crossing to pay their toll. If they miss the deadline, they are issued with a £20 fine which can increase to £60 if not paid in time.
The decision to toll the new six-lane bridge, which links Runcorn to Widnes and is used by many commuters from the Cheshire West area, was opposed by local MPs. In addition, a protest group called Scrap Mersey Tolls has been pushing for the charges – which range from £2 to £8 depending on the vehicle – to be abolished.
However, David Parr, chief executive of Halton Borough Council and the Mersey Gateway Crossings Board, has hailed the bridge as "really popular" after 2,019,000 journeys were made across it from October 14 to November 14.
Mr Parr said: "We are averaging 72,000 vehicles every weekday, which is over and above what we expected, and this shows that people are enjoying the quicker, easier and more reliable journeys the bridge brings.”
Anthony Alicastro, chief executive officer of Emovis Operations Mersey Ltd which runs the Merseyflow operation, urged regular users of the bridge to register for discounts.
He added: “For anyone that does receive a PCN, our advice is to deal with it as quickly as possible as you get a 50% discount – reducing the charge to £20 plus the original toll fee – if you pay within 14 days. The PCN also contains details of how you can challenge the payment if you feel it has been sent in error.”
Weaver Vale MP Mike Amesbury was alarmed to discover just how many fines have already had to be issued.
He said: "It’s a huge amount of money and this is one of the many reasons why I’m against the current funding and tolling approach to the bridge.
“Even in the short space of time that it’s been operating we’ve had many constituents contact us about fines, including a 76-yer-old lady who was in floods of tears because she’d been fined £80 for being a day late in paying for a crossing.
“Fortunately my office managed to help her get it quashed on this occasion, but the initial distress caused was clear to see.
“Tolls are one thing, but huge fines are quite another. Seeing this much money taken out of people’s pockets will certainly leave a bad taste in the mouth for many of my constituents.”
John McGoldrick, spokesman for the Scrap Mersey Tolls group, labelled the tolls “unfair”.
He added: "The penalty is reduced to £20 if paid within two weeks, but the main effect of that is to encourage people to pay up rather than dispute the penalty. And they may well have good reason to dispute the penalty because of inadequate signage and possible system faults.
“The Gateway penalties should be scrapped along with the tolls.”
The bridge can be used by Halton residents in exchange for a £10 annual fee but drivers from elsewhere must pay a toll. Motorbikes and buses do not face a toll.
When the new bridge opened, the ageing Silver Jubilee Bridge was shut to traffic and will remain closed for about a year for maintenance work. Once it reopens, it too will be tolled.
There are a variety of ways people can pay for one-off crossings, including online at www.merseyflow.co.uk or by phone on 01928 878 878. You need to give your vehicle registration details when you pay.
See full story in the Chester Leader