The Mersey recently got a new road bridge. But is it any good?

Driving north across the new bridge. Image: Bazonka/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been an exciting autumn in the Liverpool City Region. Just after midnight in the early hours of Saturday 14 October the new £600m, 1km long Mersey Gateway Bridge, in our very own Halton, opened to traffic for the first time.

It’s part of an extensive local road investment programme within this part of Liverpool City Region, and what a fine and useful monument it is. The opening ceremony, on the preceding Friday evening, consisted of a spectacular light show and firework display. It’s also been said that there may be a more formal opening ceremony in the new year. 

The bridge is a part of the wider Mersey Gateway project, the largest infrastructure project in England outside London. It consists of a 2.2km elevated route, 12 new bridges and seven new or upgraded junctions over a 9.2km route. It will, for example, make access to the nearby Liverpool John Lennon Airport much easier and more dependable for people travelling across the river from that direction.

Now, I don’t want to rain on the parade, but there is an important issue here. The new bridge will be tolled, whereas the bridge that it has replaced was not. This means that the nearest toll free River Mersey road crossing to the official Liverpool City Region will now be in Warrington, which (bizarrely) is not within the official Liverpool City Region. Since the new bridge opened, there has not been a single toll free River Mersey road crossing within the official Liverpool City Region. 

An artist’s impression of the new bridge.

The good news, however, is that there are plenty of options for crossing the River Mersey within the official Liverpool City Region, as long as you are prepared to use tolled crossings:

  • The Queensway Tunnel, opened in 1934 by King George V, as the longest road tunnel in the world at that time. It consists of four pseudo-motorway road lanes and runs between Liverpool city centre and Birkenhead on the Wirral peninsula. The standard cost for a car is £1.70 each way.
  • The Kingsway Tunnel, opened in 1971 by Queen Elizabeth II, consists of four pseudo-motorway road lanes and runs between Liverpool city centre and Wallasey on the Wirral peninsula. The standard cost for a car is £1.70 each way.
  • The new Mersey Gateway Bridge, which is effectively a six lane motorway and runs between Widnes and Runcorn in Halton. The standard cost for a car is £2 each way.  
  • The Silver Jubilee Bridge, opened in 1961 by Princess Alexandra and then opened again in 1976 by Queen Elizabeth II after it was laterally expanded. This has now been superseded by the Mersey Gateway bridge and is being repaired and re-purposed to become a two lane road for local use in Halton, between Widnes and Runcorn – although it will still be subject to a standard toll for a car of £2 each way when it re-opens.

That all equates to eight road lanes of tolled tunnels between Liverpool city centre and the Wirral peninsula less than a mile away, and eight road lanes of tolled bridges between Widnes and Runcorn, again less than a mile apart. That is a grand total of 16 cross river road lanes that exist within the official Liverpool City Region, all tolled, all told.

The new bridge, shown in context. Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

Many people around here have been campaigning against the Mersey tunnel tolls for years, to no avail. Partly that’s because there is still outstanding debt on the tunnels. But it’s also because the Mersey tunnel tolls are one of the few relatively unencumbered sources of revenue that the Liverpool City Region government has – money which can be used by, and at the discretion of, our local leaders with minimal interference from the nosey and bossy people in far away Whitehall. No such luck with the new bridge tolls, which will be returned to the private investors which built the bridge for the next 30 years.

So, how much does this 21st century highway robbery damage the Liverpool City Region economy? I’ve been unable to find any substantial research into the question based on the current configuration – but back in July, the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns said that the recently announced removal of the Severn Bridge tolls would benefit the local economy of South West England and South Wales by £200m.

Now, I appreciate that a couple of pounds each way is not a particularly large toll. But I would suggest that it does restrict free movement of people, goods, services and capital within the metropolis, in that it puts people off just crossing back and forth across the river at will, multiple times each day, which they may well would do if it was toll free.

Also, if you are not part of an electronic payment scheme, then you have to pay the correct amount of cash into an automatic toll booth basket when using the tunnels. This inconvenience slows you down, and woe betide if you are a bad shot. ( You have to pay online if you use the new bridge.) On balance then, and given that, as locals, we all live in the same metropolis, I do think that the tolls are a problem.


Coincidentally, the new, third Forth bridge, connecting Edinburgh and Fife, called the Queensferry Crossing, was opened to great fanfare by Queen Elizabeth II on 4 September 2017, and it was even broadcast live on a national BBC news programme. That 2.7kms long bridge will not be tolled and was paid for by national government at a cost of £1.4bn

Generally, though, Liverpolitans seem to be excited by, and impressed with, the new bridge. And the investment of such a significant sum, reported to be £1.9bn in total, into Liverpool City Region’s transport infrastructure indicates strong optimism about the economic prospects of our metropolis, which is very positive.

There are actually a number of other big investments going on in Liverpool City Region currently. For example, there’s the £100 million Liverpool Shopping Park, which also opened in October. That’s described by its developers as “the UK’s biggest, new retail and leisure destination”, who note that there are “1.8 million people living within a 30 minute drive time“.

For now though, let’s enjoy the impressive new Mersey Gateway bridge. After all, more than 1m vehicles crossed it in its first 16 days of operation 

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.