LIVERPOOL'S £600M light rail project is hanging in the balance this week after the city council demanded alterations to the route days before consortia were due to submit their final bids.
Two bidders, M-Tram, comprising Serco, Mitsubishi and MTR Corporation, and Met, consisting of Keolis, Parsons Brinckerhoff and Balfour Beatty, have now been granted a two-week extension.
The new deadline is next Thursday, but a source close to one group said an option under consideration was to walk away altogether rather than add to £1M already spent on the project.
The source also said costs could rise dramatically if the route was changed at such a late stage.
MerseyTram is made up of three lines, the first 19km stretch connecting the city centre with northern suburbs, the second running east from the centre and the third providing a service south to John Lennon Airport.
Consortia were due to submit bids to design and build Lines 1 and 2 on 30 September.
However, neither offered tenders after the council's announcement that it wanted Line 2 to follow the planned route as far as Edge Lane, then divert to serve the regenerated Speke-Garston area and the airport.
Merseytravel, the public body overseeing public transport in the city, was dismayed by the council's move.
'The decision of the city council to opt for a hybrid route is totally unacceptable.
It throws the whole scheme into jeopardy. Unless it reconsiders it is doubtful if the project can go ahead, ' said a spokesman.
Funding for the £225M Line 1 has been approved, with the £170M promised from government topped up by European Union and private sector contributions.
Ministers have yet to agree funding for the £200M Line 2 and changing the route now would affect the discussion.
The original route was publicised in 2002 and included in the Local Transport Plan.
Sources claim the council's new demand 'came completely out of the blue'.
However, a council spokesman said the comments were submitted as part of an ongoing public consultation on Line 2.
Council leader Mike Storey was unavailable for comment, but a report to his cabinet's 17 September meeting explains the thinking behind the decision.
'Substantial growth is projected for Liverpool Airport, which is currently poorly served by public transport.
Therefore it is considered that a better case can be made for the routes to Speke and the airport.'
Political machinations may be a factor in the wrangle.
One source suggested that the Liberal Democrat controlled city council's proposed Line 2 route would take the tram away from the Labour stronghold of Knowsley.
It was hoped that the scheme would be up and running in time for Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture in 2008.