IT was built 37 years ago to replace an ailing floating bridge and link one side of Southampton to the other.

In its early days, Southampton’s Itchen Bridge was used by 55,000 people a week and cost drivers just 15p per crossing.

Today the Daily Echo can reveal how the bridge has raked in more than £76m since it opened – and there is no sign of the toll being scrapped for the seven million people who use it every year.

Our Freedom of Information request revealed how in the past seven years alone, Southampton City Council’s coffers have swelled by more than £22m paid out by drivers making their way in and out of the city.

That equates to an average of £3.2m every year – with less than a third of that money thought to have ever been needed or used to fund repairs.

The revelations have today sparked fresh calls for council bosses to reduce or even scrap the charges altogether amid accusations that drivers are being used as “a cash cow” to prop up other services in the city.

Those opposing the charges – which currently stand at 50p for off-peak times and 60p for peak hours – say reducing the cost or getting rid of it could also ease traffic pressures on some of the most congested roads in the city.

But the fees have been defended by council chiefs who say the money reaped from the Itchen Bridge tolls helps fill an ever-shrinking pot of cash to pay for vital services in the city.

Figures obtained by the Daily Echo investigation show that by the end of March next year, the council will have collected around £22.6m from bridge crossings.

Only a small number of people pay less, including residents with an SO19 postcode who can apply for a travel card that reduces the fee by 20p.

When pressed, the city council refused to disclose exactly how much of the annual income from the bridge is actually is spent on maintaining the structure.

But the Daily Echo understands less than £1m a year was spent on maintenance and staffing before 2011, when automated barriers replaced staff-manned booths, significantly reducing the annual cost of operating it.

The estimated £76m made through tolls since 1977 dwarfs the £12.2m it cost to build the 62,000-ton bridge.

It has long been believed that there was a “promise” to scrap the toll after the bridge had paid itself off, but documents of the time and Echo archives indicate there was no such “promise” – it is in fact just a myth.

The council also refused to confirm whether it is still paying off some of the loans taken out to fund the bridge at the outset, although the Daily Echo understands that it is – and will only be paid off in 2016.

The toll has been controversial for decades, and now there are fresh calls for the council to either reduce or scrap the charge.

Aaron Ward, a painter and decorator from Weston who uses the bridge regularly, has described it as a “rip off”, while also criticising the fact that the automated toll booths do not give out any change.

He said: “Why hasn’t the council reduced the charges to help their residents or anyone using the bridge in general?

“Yes if you have a smart card as a resident you can get reduced fees, but as a working resident when can you find time to get down to the Woolston toll office to top up your card?

“You can’t, and when I have tried to get down to the office it’s always closed or packed because there’s only one cashier on the desk.”

Independent Councillor Against the Cuts Keith Morrell, said: “The bridge was built to bring the city together and it’s unfair that people living on the eastern side of the city should have to pay a tax for the privilege of moving about the city.

“The council has gradually come to rely on it as a charge, and the bridge as a cow to milk to prop up spending.

“I don’t think there should be a toll charge, the bridge has been paid for and taxation should be progressive and fair – and this is neither.”

Conservative opposition leader Royston Smith called for the charge to be reduced, saying a 20p charge could attract more drivers and maintain a similar level of income.

He said: “We feel that would hopefully generate the same income as more people would use it, and would take traffic off Bitterne Road East.”

Speaking about where surplus toll funds are spent, council leader Simon Letts said: “I’ll be absolutely honest, it’s support for the ever-decreasing pot of money we have to spend on services in this city.”

Saying there are no current plans to either decrease or increase the toll, he said: “On balance I think we have probably got it right, the key is to make it cheaper for people who are paying their taxes in Southampton, and that’s what we do through the smart card scheme.”

A spokesman for the council said the purpose of the toll was to “firstly, cover the ongoing maintenance of the bridge and its infrastructure, including future planned maintenance and improvement works and secondly, to manage the traffic flow over the bridge, to minimise congestion and the environmental and amenity impact, particularly on the mostly residential east side of the bridge.”

Roger Lawson, a spokesman for the Alliance of British Drivers said: “We oppose the toll, there is no justification for it in essence.

“Motorists already pay a lot in road tax and other charges such as fuel duty.”

And a spokesman for Hampshire-based motoring organisation The AA said: “When you look at the cost of going via an alternative route then 60p is a reasonable charge.

“The problem is that the council needs to be transparent with the overall costs because without that the motoring public is going to assume the worst and worry that they are once again being milked for cash.”