The Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry tolls could be hiked by “any amount” without getting the go-ahead from the Government, under plans being considered.
Ministers are consulting on whether to slash red tape by no longer insisting toll operators apply to the Transport Secretary before increasing their charges.
Options the Department for Transport is considering include allowing them to “increase tolls by any amount, as and when required”.
However, the Government’s preferred option is to enable operators to increase their tolls, not more than once annually, either in line with inflation or inflation minus 1% without an application to the Secretary of State.
The consultation applies to 11 privately-operated and council-run tolls, including the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry and the Dartmouth to Kingswear ferry in South Devon.
Plymouth City Council and Cornwall Council jointly run both the bridge and Torpoint Ferry that separate Devon and Cornwall, and last month announced the discounted pre-paid electronic payment scheme to use both would increase by 80p a month.
Tolls at the crossings were last increased in March 2010, with the Tamar Tag – which offers half-price crossings – being introduced in 2007. The current toll is £1.50 for cars, or 75p for tag users, and the new fee could raise an extra £506,000 a year.
Interestingly, the joint committee in charge decided against applying to the Secretary of State for Transport to put up the basic toll.
The bridge and ferry together collect more than £9 million in tolls each year, but face a constant battle to generate enough income to cover costs.
Critics of the existing regime point out that attempting to get Department for Transport consent can cost tens of thousands of pounds – which is ultimately paid for by the road user in tolls.
And while capping increases in line with inflation would prevent operators from exploiting the freedom, it risks raising very little money if – meaning an application to the minister for a higher fare may be needed in any case.
In turn, putting no restrictions on a toll increase will likely raise alarm that motorists are used as cash cows to plug gaps in budgets, which is criticism levelled at car park charges and speed cameras.
David List, general manager of the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry Joint Committee, said: “We will study the proposals.
“But there does seem to be some potential benefits from greater flexibility and reducing costs for users.”
Oliver Colvile, Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, welcomed potential savings to be passed on to motorists, but added: “I would be concerned if it was used as a cash cow in the same way I am concerned speed cameras are used as cash cows rather than stopping people from going too fast.”
In a written statement to Parliament, Roads Minister Robert Goodwill said certain operators are required to apply to the Secretary of State for any increase in tolls “regardless of how big or small”.
“This process can be costly and time consuming for the operator, and will often involve a public inquiry,” he added.
“These costs are likely to be passed on to the user through higher tolls. The Government have therefore decided the process needs to be simplified to reduce the administrative burden on operators and Government, while ensuring the interests of users continue to be protected.”