The Kingsay (Wallasey) and Queensway (Birkenhead) tunnels are major thoroughfares, with about 25 million vehicles travelling through them each year.
The tunnels are regarded as the safest tunnels in the UK and amongst the safest in Europe for their age following the last independent assessment.
The tunnels became assets of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (CA) on its creation in April 2014. Prior to that date they belonged to Merseyside’s Integrated Transport Authority (the political arm of Merseytravel) which was dissolved on the creation of the Combined Authority.
The operational arm of Merseytravel remains responsible for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the tunnels and procuring and overseeing major infrastructure projects.
Major investment over the last eight years has involved the creation of new escape chambers, resurfacing and re-cladding and renewal of fire mains and high mast lighting. There are also a significant number of other smaller projects on-going on an annual basis.
The tunnels estate consists of:
- 14km of road, when including the tunnel and approach roads
- 5,428 light fittings, including those on the approach roads
- 44 in-tunnel ventilation fans
- 8 ventilation stations each with six four-story high fans
- 30 water pumps to remove ground water
- 32 jet fans which clear smoke in the event of an emergency
- 11 standby electricity generators which have enough capacity to supply 2700 homes
- 400 CCTV cameras linked up to the central control room to assist in assessing traffic flow and in the event of accidents and emergencies.
The Queensway Tunnel celebrated the 80th Anniversary of its opening in July 2014 with a special open day - a short film was produced to mark the anniversary.
Why are the tunnels tolled?
Only those road projects, including tunnels, built on approval from Government as part of the national road network are paid for indirectly via road tax and general taxation. The tunnels were built as a joint venture by local authorities and their upkeep and maintenance remains outside of the national road network. There are still comparable charges for tunnels such as the Dartford and Tyne.
Maintaining the tunnels is a significant undertaking, not least because of their age. Millions of pounds of investment is needed to keep the tunnels operating on a day-to-day basis and millions more to make any improvements.
The tolls also go towards paying off the residual debt from their construction (due to be paid off in 2048) and the money borrowed for past improvements when the tunnel tolls were insufficient to cover costs. These payments are fixed and the penalties incurred by paying them off early would make the debt more expensive and therefore be a false economy. The Tunnels Act 2004 now ensures sufficient funds are generated through tunnel use to allow for their upkeep and improvement without borrowing.
Who sets the toll levels and how?
From 2015/16 tunnel toll levels will be decided by the Combined Authority, following recommendations from the Merseytravel Committee as part of overall budget setting process. As always, these will be in line with the Tunnels Act 2004.
Under the Tunnels Act 2004, the tolls are calculated on a formula linked to inflation, but aren’t permitted to go above this level. The toll level increases since the Act was introduced in 2004 have been below the level calculated as elected members have exercised their discretion on economic and social grounds to maintain a discount.
Following a recommendation from the Merseytravel Committee, the Combined Authority set the following toll charges for 2016/17 which will come into force from 1 April 2016:
- A freeze on cash tolls
- Increase in Fast Tag discount of 20p for class 1 vehicles and multiples thereof for other classes
- All emergency services liveried vehicles to be allowed free travel through the Mersey Tunnels
- Travel through the Mersey Tunnels between 10pm on 24th December and 6am on 26th December each year be allowed free in recognition that public transport services are not available during these times
Where do any surplus funds from the tolls go?
The two Tunnels are part of the wider transport network and cannot be considered in isolation. The surplus, which is built into the provisions of the Tunnel Act 2004, provides valuable revenue which is ring-fenced for a funding pot that pays into projects such as Park and Ride schemes, new bus stations and access improvements across Merseyside – money that would otherwise be unavailable. This is what an integrated transport network is about.
Also, as it is difficult to predict exactly what funding will be needed at the beginning of each financial year, the surplus also provides a ‘buffer’ should there be unexpected urgent work required on the tunnels that has not been accounted for in pre-determined capital programmes. It allows money to be set aside for those significant schemes in future that may exceed the income from tolling in a specific year.
The tunnels are getting older with each year that passes are will require proportionately more investment as the years go on. The Queensway is now 80 years old and the Kingsway 44 years old. Maintenance will become more challenging as the tunnels age further.
What is happening with the review of the tolling process?
In February 2015, the Combined Authority agreed to set up a task group to review the tolling process of the Mersey Tunnels.
The task group put forward recommendations that formed part of proposals for the 2016/17 tolls that were approved by both the Merseytravel Committee and Liverpool City Region in February 2016.
While informing the toll setting for 2016/17, the review is also considering the tolling issue longer term so work is continuing.
Is there any kind of discount available?
Regular users, who are most likely to be local users, can benefit from using a Fast Tag. These offer a significant discount on the cash toll – currently 50p per journey, meaning that every seventh journey is free.
Almost four in 10 (38%) journeys are already made by Fast Tag, with the highest concentration of accounts being in the areas immediately served by the tunnels – Wirral and central Liverpool.
There are two dedicated Fast Tag lanes (one in each direction) at the Kingsway Tunnel toll plaza and three at the Queensway Tunnel toll plaza (two on entrance and one on exit), giving users extra benefit.
Up to 3 Fast Tag lanes at Wallasey (Kingsway) are open during the busiest times is being run on a trial basis, meaning there will be three open heading to Liverpool in the morning peak and three heading to Wirral in the evening peak.
The exact number of lanes used at any time is dependent upon a number of traffic flow related issues and will vary based on demand.
More information on the Fast Tag can be found on the Mersey Tunnels website.