Skye Bridge

The Skye Bridge is a road bridge over Loch Alsh, connecting mainland Highland with the Isle of Skye, Scotland. It forms part of the A87. The bridge is located at around 57°16′47″N 5°44′19″W / 57.2796°N 5.7385°W / 57.2796; -5.7385, with one pillar standing on the island of Eilean Bàn.

The shortest crossing between the mainland and the island (around 500 metres (1,640 ft)), the sound between the villages of Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland and Kyleakin on the island's east coast has traditionally been the most common route. A ferry operated services from around the year 1600, run by a number of private operators and latterly by Caledonian MacBrayne.

Design and construction

With the construction of road and rail connections to Kyle of Lochalsh toward the end of the 19th century, various parties proposed the construction of a bridge to the island. Although the engineering task was well within the capability of the age (the crossing is shorter and shallower than that bridged by the Forth Bridge), the island's remote location and its small population meant the cost of a bridge could not be justified.

Increased prosperity in the islands, and a healthy summertime tourist traffic, led to ever increasing volumes of traffic queueing for the ferries, and brought renewed calls for the construction of a road bridge. In 1989 Conservative junior minister James Douglas-Hamilton announced a bidding round, requested tenders to construct a toll bridge. A variety of locations and designs were proposed, but the contract was awarded to Miller-Dywidag, a consortium composed of Scottish construction company Miller Construction, German engineering company Dywidag International, and financial partner the Bank of America. The Miller-Dywidag proposal (designed in collaboration with civil engineering firm Arup) was for a single-span concrete arch, supported by two piers resting on caissons in the loch and using Eilean Bàn as a stepping-stone. The PFI plan was accepted, and received support from local MP Charles Kennedy and the local council in the full knowledge that it would be on a high-toll basis for a limited period. Although the bridge itself was built with PFI, the approach roads were the responsibility of the Scottish Office, which paid £15 million for the roads and associated improvements, and to cover the costs associated with decommissioning the ferry. Construction began in 1992 and the bridge was opened by Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth on 16 October 1995. At this time the ferry service across the sound ceased, leaving the bridge and the Mallaig — Armadale ferry as the only year-round connections to the mainland.

Toll controversy

The first major capital project funded by the Private Finance Initiative, the bridge has been controversial since its construction was announced. In exchange for the contractors funding the bridge's construction themselves (rather than being paid to do so from the public exchequer) they were granted a licence to operate the bridge and charge travellers tolls. When the Bridge contract was first awarded, the partnership estimated it would cost around £15 million, although delays and design changes added significantly to the cost (to around £25 million, by the BBC's estimate).

The tolls charged by the bridge concessionaire, Skye Bridge Ltd., proved to be particularly unpopular. By 2004 a round trip cost visitors £11.40, fourteen times the round trip price charged by the Forth Road Bridge (a crossing over twice the length), a price which protesters claimed made it the most expensive road in Europe. As the Skye bridge was being constructed, several other (smaller) bridges were also being built or planned in the Hebrides, connecting smaller islands either to larger ones or to the mainland. These bridges were to be public roads without tolls, and Skye locals came to believe that the Skye bridge too was a public road on which no toll should be levied.

The ferry operator, Caledonian MacBrayne, had made a profit of over a million pounds per year on the route, but observers from the BofA and later the National Audit Office noted that many locals were excused the ferry fee by ferry workers, with much of the ferry's revenue coming from the heavy summertime tourist traffic. One local told the BBC that on the day following a defeat of the English football team by their German counterparts, ferry workers had let cars bearing German registration plates travel for free. In the bridge's first year of operation it recorded traffic of 612,000 vehicles, a third more than the ferry's official numbers.

The campaign included mass protests and a prolonged non-payment campaign, and continued as long as the tolls. A toll-collector interviewed by the BBC in 2005 said that abuse of collectors by motorists had been commonplace. Numerous toll opponents were cited for refusing to pay the toll, with around 500 being arrested and 130 subsequently convicted of non-payment. Among those charged was Clodagh Mackenzie, an elderly lady from whom the land necessary for the bridge's arrival in Skye had been compulsorily purchased; the charges against her were subsequently dropped without explanation. Of those convicted, only the first, the SKAT Secretary Andy Anderson, received a (brief) prison term. Those charged with non-payment had to make the 140 mile round trip to Dingwall sheriff court, again crossing the bridge and where again many refused to pay, incurring a further criminal charge. Robbie the Pict argued that the legal paperwork for the tolls was incomplete, and that consequently the tolls themselves were illegal. In particular he said that the "assignation statement", a licence to charge a toll, had never been given. Interviewed later by the BBC Fiscal Davind Hingston in Dingwall denied this claim, but admitted that he himself had been denied access to many government documents on the case, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Hingston told the BBC "As a fiscal I was stuck with that evidence but as a private individual I found it stunning", leading to renewed calls that the convictions of the toll protesters should be quashed - to this the Crown Office reiterated that appeals on these grounds had already been rejected by the courts.

The bridge, and the toll protest, became a continuing political issue. Following the 1997 General Election, the Labour-run Scottish Office introduced a scheme whereby tolls for locals were subsidised (the scheme cost a total of £7 million). Following the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Labour Party joined in coalition with the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who had made the Skye Bridge toll abolition one of their priorities. With responsibility for Scotland's road network transferred from Westminster to the Scottish Executive, increased political pressure was placed on the toll's future. On 3 June 2004, Jim Wallace, the Enterprise Minister in the Scottish Executive announced that he hoped the bridge would be bought out, and tolls abolished, by the end of 2004. In line with this, on 21 December 2004, Scottish Transport Minister Nicol Stephen announced that the bridge had been purchased for approximately £27 million, and toll collection immediately ceased. During the preceding decade £33.3 million in tolls had been collected. Figures obtained by the BBC under freedom of information laws showed the consortium's operating costs on the bridge during this period had been only £3.5 million.

The topic is explored extensively in George Monbiot's book Captive State in which he examines the merits and demerits of the Private Finance Initiative.


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