Following the Garden Bridge debacle, which cost £43 million of public money including £24 million of Transport for London’s before collapsing in ignominy, we might assume that lessons would be learned. But a similar fiasco about another proposed bridge across the Thames is quietly gathering pace.
In October 2016 Sadiq Khan announced that a new cycling and pedestrian bridge would be built to connect Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf which “could be open by as soon as 2020”. The structure now proposed will be the largest pedestrian and cycling bridge in the world, and also the largest with the ability to open up and lift in the middle, like Tower Bridge, in order to allow tall ships to pass through the gap.
But the TfL team formed to deliver the project did not start work until early 2017 and it knew it had to deliver it quickly. They began developing the project before they had done any work on looking at other options for making it easier to cross the river at that point.
One of the main arguments for building the bridge is to relieve pressure on the Jubilee line between Canada Water and Canary Wharf, which arose in the first place because TfL decided not to buy ten extra trains on the grounds that they weren’t needed. Meanwhile, it is often forgotten that there is already a pedestrian ferry service connecting Canary Wharf pier and Nelson Dock pier in Rotherhithe. It has never been used to full capacity.
When the Mayor made his original announcement about a new bridge, I wrote to his then deputy for transport suggesting that as an interim step the ferry could stop charging passengers and so enable TfL to get a better measure of pedestrian demand from Rotherhithe. However, TfL refused. This unwillingness to consider alternative approaches that might seem to contradict the Mayor’s public promise to build a bridge has been a fundamental problem all along.
If you believe funds are unlimited, the bridge might still make sense to you. By the cost of it is now becoming the critical issue. As of February 2019, TfL has already spent £9.9 million on the project and its budget suggests another £8 million will be spent this year even before planning permission is sought.
TfL originally said the bridge would cost between £120 million and £180 million to build and £2.4 million a year to run (like Tower Bridge, it will need to be staffed round the clock). Other calculations anticipate it will cost £200 million to build and, privately, some TfL officers have not disputed that the build cost could go as high as £400 million. We should get the next estimate of costs in late April, but for now £300 million seems to be a fair assumption. Remember, the original estimated cost of the shorter and simpler Garden Bridge was £60 million and ended up being forecast at over £200 million.
Would the new bridge represent good value for money? TfL assumes the equivalent of 3,333 pedestrians and 1,875 cyclists will use the bridge each day. But the figure for pedestrians might be optimistic: the bridge will be 800 metres long and the walk from the Canary Wharf side to the main area of local new development at Canada Water takes 27-minutes and it’s not clear how many people would want to cross the bridge on foot on a winter’s night.
If the bridge, which would be free to use, did end up costing £300 million to build and £2.4 million a year to operate, that would represent a capital cost of £57,604 per user and £461 a year to operate per user. This suggests a possible negative benefit-to-cost ratio possibly as low as 0.7, where 1.0 represents value for money.
TfL did model the cost of up to three electric roll on roll off electric ferries and new pontoons, but have since ruled it out as an option, even though it would cost less, be more comfortable to use in the winter and would often be a quicker way to cross the river – the bridge would have to open for ships passing by, normally for ten minutes but for up to an hour for larger ones.
But the main cost problem with the bridge is the opportunity cost. If it did cost £300 million to build, that would amount to around 20 per cent of TfL’s Healthy Streets capital programme between 2019-2024. Couldn’t that money be better spent on a range of smaller projects to encourage more cycling and walking that might deliver more benefits overall?
TfL will say that that there is public support for the bridge, with the last consultation showing that 93 per cent of respondents support it. Even so, only 37 per cent of those respondents said they would use it for commuting and 56 per cent for leisure purposes. And the consultation didn’t mention either the cost of the bridge or the possibilities of using a better ferry service.
The current ferry has very limited capacity to carry bicycles, but that could be expanded. An enhanced ferry service would not mean a bridge could not be built at a later date if demand for crossings clearly justified it. An advantage of a ferry system is that the craft and their pontoons can be easily moved to different locations. But if you build a bridge that turns out to be under-used, you’re stuck with it.
The Mayor should adopt a new approach to making it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the Thames at this point in East London. He should first make the existing ferry service free in order to test demand more rigorously. Then, when more user data is available, he should re-consult, offering two choices: an expensive but permanent bridge and a cheaper, more adaptable and arguably more attractive roll on roll off electric ferry.
There’s a suspicion that political calculations have played too big a part in this project all along. Mayor Khan made his promise to build the Canary Wharf-Rotherhithe cycling and pedestrian bridge on the same day as he announced the Silvertown road tunnel would go ahead, perhaps to appease the green lobby which has strongly opposed the latter scheme. A failure by TfL to consult on the ferry option leaves them open to a formal challenge on the grounds that they haven’t properly considered alternatives and a resulting inability to secure the transport and works order it would need from the government in order to proceed.
Is that even the intention? The bridge is now financially unviable. It would be politically less embarrassing if the Mayor could blame the government for its failure rather than be accused of making mistakes very like those of Boris Johnson.
Andrew Wood is a councillor for Canary Wharf ward and leader of the opposition Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council.