Ronald W. McQuaid and Malcolm Greig

The Bridge to Skye, Scotland – Ronald W. McQuaid and Malcolm Greig

The chorus of the famous “Skye Boat” song:

“Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry,
Carry the lad who was born to be King,
Over the seas to Skye”

commemorates Bonnie Prince Charlie, the unsuccessful Jacobite claimant to the British throne, crossing to Skye after his defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746. Nearly 250 years later, in 1995, the need to travel by boat to Skye ceased as the mile long (1.6 km) road bridge opened to traffic. This toll bridge replaced the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry service between Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland and Kyleakin, around 500 meters away on the Island. The new bridge was steeped in controversy from the beginning, as its tolls were similar to the former ferry fares (£5.70 per one-way crossing for each car and £41.20 for a large bus during the summer by 2002), making it one of the most expensive bridge crossings in Europe. However, after a long-running campaign, the government changed its policy and the tolls were removed at 7.30 am on 21st December 2004, so allowing ‘toll-free’ travel between Skye and the Scottish mainland.

The Skye Bridge was the first major Private Finance Initiative (PFI) funded project in Scotland, under which public infrastructure was built and financed by the private sector in return for tolls and/or government subsidy. A similar policy has continued in more recent years under the title Public Private Partnerships. The Skye Bridge PFI was, however, highly criticized in terms of receiving large indirect public subsidies (e.g. government funding for the approach roads), having poorly structured (and possibly invalid) legal and financial documents, giving too much monopoly power to the bridge building consortium, and providing poor value for money for the tax payer and toll payer.

The tolls did change over the years, with local users eventually getting a discount (in 1998 a revised discount structure was introduced, but only on books of 20 tickets which had to be used within any single year), although the rates for non-residents, or residents not using the bridge regularly, and commercial traffic remained high. Also changes in European Union legislation required the addition of VAT (Value Added Tax) to tolls, raising more political pressure, so the Scottish Executive needed to further subsidize the private bridge developers and funders (primarily Bank of America) so as not to pass this extra tax on to users. Dealing with the owner of a near monopoly transport link meant that the power in such negotiations were not necessarily equal so the subsidy is likely to have been higher than in other circumstances.

Skye is one of the few parts of the Highlands and Islands that is increasing in population. Although population was growing before the Skye Bridge was built, the new bridge appears to have had a beneficial impact on both population and economic development. However, the bridge was funded by an expensive and poorly designed funding process. This included a large toll, similar in level to the previous ferry. This created a great sense of injustice, as other bridges in Scotland were toll free (or charged small tolls in a few cases). A number of studies were carried out before and after the bridge was constructed, each indicating a positive impact of the bridge, but a significant part of this not being realized due to the tolls having an adverse impact on the local economy. Including displacement, multiplier, leakage and additionality factors, these impacts were estimated at around £4.7 m and resulting in over 250 fewer jobs than without the tolls.

Eventually, due to political pressure, legal challenges, the need to increase tolls due to changes in European Union tax legislation and the evidence that the tolls were inhibiting the development of the local economy, the tolls were finally abolished in 2004 (although at considerable cost to the government).

The evidence does suggest that the means of funding bridges to islands, and who bears the cost of funding, are crucial to their social and economic impacts.