PLANS TO charge motorists to drive into the centre of London could be delayed by a lengthy public inquiry into the long term safety of Tower Bridge, the Corporation of London warned this week.
The Corporation, which owns the bridge, is unhappy that Transport for London (TfL) has so far failed to reveal its plans to protect the historic structure, which lies outside the proposed charging area, from overloading.
It fears that a significant number of vehicles will divert across the bridge to avoid paying the £5 charge that TfL hopes to introduce in January 2003. A high proportion of these will be HGVs and coaches crossing the 17t weight limited bridge illegally.
The Corporation of London expressed fury this week that, just weeks before TfL formally launches its scheme, it is unwilling to discuss plans to guarantee the bridge's structural safety.
Strategic transport director Joe Weiss this week warned that objections from the Corporation could lead to a lengthy public inquiry if the scheme order is published without satisfying its concerns.
Fears emerged last month that the 105 year old bridge may have to be closed if more overweight vehicles use it. (NCE 24 May).
Already running at its maximum capacity of 38,000 vehicles a day, the cast iron and wrought iron structure is suffering from dynamic overloading. A recent survey concluded that even if the current weight limit was strictly enforced, major refurbishment would be needed within 10-15 years.
The crossing is part of the eastern perimeter of the proposed zone. Unlike the six lane Vauxhall Bridge to the west, Tower Bridge has only two lanes with a 32km/ph speed limit. Increased demand due to diversion is expected to cause gridlock on both sides of the river unless access to the bridge is restricted by Transport for London and agreed with the Corporation.
Agreement is also needed with Tower Hamlets and Southwark borough councils, which own the approaches to the bridge.
The Corporation had been expecting details of TfL's plans to reach it 'in good time' to confirm its support before the scheme is formally launched at the end of next month.
But Weiss said TfL was 'naive' if it thought it could launch a scheme next month without full consultation with the Corporation on Tower Bridge. If agreement with London's boroughs is not reached by the end of next month, a public inquiry would scupper TfL's hopes of launching the scheme in January 2003.
'TfL has had six months to come up with solutions for Tower Bridge but we are yet to see them, ' said Weiss. 'It is not unreasonable to allow us a matching period to assess whether its solutions are acceptable. The business community shares our concerns and they don't like to be ignored.'
TfL's safety solutions were expected to include width restrictions and traffic islands to restrict approaches. Tuning traffic signals to slow traffic flows towards the bridge are also thought to be under consideration, plus enforcement of weight and speed limits. Measures could cost TfL up to £30M.
But TfL rejected the Corporation's claims this week with a spokeman claiming that 'at least three' meetings had already been held with the Corporation and more were planned to put firm details on the safety measures.
'Our consultant Oscar Faber will report back to us with its recommendations in mid July and we will then go back to the Corporation with details of the proposals, ' said the spokesman.
'But we are not ready to present them yet.'
TfL is finalising details of the scheme order and should publish by the end of July. Consultation with the boroughs will then follow.