THERE were warnings today the economic toll of the Forth Road Bridge closure on the Capital could run to tens of millions of pounds as plans were drawn up to scrap scheduled roadworks to help ease traffic congestion.
Yesterday’s shock announcement that the vital crossing would be shut until New Year has been billed as an extended nightmare before Christmas for commuters and businesses.
The shutdown, put in place from midnight yesterday, means the 70,000 daily journeys across the bridge will have to be re-routed – taking an hour longer via the Kincardine Bridge, even with no extra traffic.
In an attempt to deal with the knock-on effect, the city council today confirmed all road repairs in the west of the city will be put on hold until the bridge is back up and running.
And a spokeswoman insisted the local authority was “liaising” with utility companies to make sure no new works are started in the next four weeks.
Traffic Scotland, meanwhile, vowed that all ongoing and planned roadworks along the diversion routes for the bridge will be removed to reduce congestion – with a dedicated hotline to help commuters also set up.
But authorities will have to act fast to stall the impending traffic chaos, with tailbacks of around 11 miles building up yesterday morning on the eastern approach to the Kincardine Bridge, and other long queues elsewhere.
The closure of the 51-year-old crossing comes after structural faults were uncovered during a routine inspection earlier this week.
Engineers spotted a 20mm-wide crack in a steel truss under the southbound carriageway on Tuesday, near the bridge’s north tower, with fears up to eight other trusses could have similar problems.
Business experts warned last night that the bridge’s closure at such a crucial time of year will have wide-ranging ramifications for Edinburgh’s economy.
A financial impact to Scotland of around £50m was calculated using past analysis by the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and bridge officials of the cost of travel delays alone, when replacement of the bridge’s main cable was considered in 2008. The chambers said a year-long closure would cost £1 billion.
But with the economic dent mainly affecting the local area, there are fears of a £50m impact on Edinburgh alone.
Graham Birse, business expert and director of the Edinburgh Institute, said the decision to shut the bridge would have a financial cost running to “many, many tens of millions of pounds”.
He said: “There is a financial cost. It will affect different organisations in different ways. That’s why it’s difficult to quantify. I think distribution networks are obviously going to be challenged. There’s no easy answer.”
Gordon Henderson, senior development manager of the Federation of Small Businesses, said companies needed clarity and information on the closure “as soon as possible” – and warned of the knock-on impact on high streets around the Forth.
He urged residents to ditch their cars in favour of public transport, in order to free up the roads for commercial vehicles carrying crucial deliveries in the run up to Christmas.
“This is a very serious situation,” he said. “I think people are still digesting it. I think they are pretty shocked. There has been a dawning and they are realising how serious this is.
“What businesses need more than anything else is information they can trust – and the biggest bit of information they need is, when will this be over? The other big impact will be on the communities that have these big queues going through them.
“You can draw parallels to Operation Stack in Kent when the Channel Tunnel closes. Local shoppers just stopped using the town centres because the roads were congested and clogged. I’m slightly worried that with the local communities around the Forth Road Bridge, people just won’t want to go down the high street. I think we should try to encourage as many people as possible to use public transport.
“But I don’t think we should be too much the merchants of doom. I think people are resilient. They are coming up with an alternative plan. But this is not a just Fife to Edinburgh issue, I think it’s an east of Scotland issue. All routes lead to the Forth Road Bridge.”
Haulage organisations, meanwhile, said their members would be “bearing the brunt” of the shutdown.
Martin Reid, from the Road Haulage Association in Scotland, said: “Every time there is the smallest delay then there is a cost attached to that, and the cost must go to the client or to the haulier. At the minute, with all the delays, there is massive cost attached to this.”
Chris MacRae, head of policy for Scotland for the Freight Transport Association, which represents hauliers, said: “This has come at the busiest time of year for freight operators and will cause serious issues in terms of delivery times and drivers’ hours over the Christmas period.”
Concerns over the impact of the closure on the tourism sector are also mounting. Last year, Edinburgh’s Christmas pumped nearly £200m into the Capital’s economy, while Edinburgh’s Hogmanay added another £41.8m.
A spokesman for Underbelly, which runs the celebrations, said it was too early to tell what effect the Forth Road Bridge closure might have.
But Robin Worsnop, chairman of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group and founder of Rabbie’s Small Group Tours, said there would be “deep concern” among tourism bodies across the city and beyond.
He said: “I should think that the tourism sector in Fife and across the east coast of Scotland will be very concerned by this. It’s going to have an impact on my business. All my drivers have been diverted around Kincardine – there’s heavy congestion, longer hours, frustration and traffic. It will be no doubt damaging to morale. There will be challenges for us.”
Gordon Robertson, director of communications at Edinburgh Airport, said all partner airlines had been advised of the move.
“We have alerted passengers via social media about the Forth Road Bridge closure and we are requesting people plan alternate routes from the north and factor in extra time for their journey to the airport,” he said.
“Passengers travelling from the west should also be aware of potential traffic delays as a result of the closure.”
David Birrell, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said it was “too early to understand the impact” of closing the bridge, adding: “While Edinburgh’s connectivity is important to trade, the city is blessed with a wide variety of transport links.”
He said: “In matters like this, the safety of the public has to come first so the city’s businesses will do what they always do – work around it and keep on going. I think it’s safe to say that Edinburgh will be well and truly open for business this Christmas.”
The Forth Road Bridge will remain shut until around January 5, with the full financial impact of closure still being calculated by the Scottish Government.
Yesterday, Transport Minister Derek Mackay said delaying the decision could have cost even more.
Describing the incident as a matter of “national significance”, he said: “We are aware of the potential economic impact, for strategic traffic in the east of Scotland and on people living in local communities. This is an unprecedented challenge in the maintenance of the Forth Road Bridge.”
What now? – Pages 8-9