IT was one small step for a woman but one giant leap for Southampton's future. When Sholing's Edith Park, 69, completed the last stride of her 796-metre journey, she was enthusiastically applauded into history.

On that sunny day in May 1977, Mrs Park, left, became the first pedestrian to negotiate the arching span of the brand new Itchen Bridge, a strip of concrete soaring 28 metres above the river and linking Woolston to the Chapel district of the city.

A month later vehicles began rumbling across the 62,000-ton structure and memories of the old floating bridge, which had ferried people across the river for the previous 142 years, slowly ebbed away.

Today, over half a million vehicles a month make the crossing - and pay for the privilege. The current charge is 50p for cars (rising to 60p at peak times), £25 for 17-ton lorries and 20p for motorbikes each way.

Yet, as the years have passed, justification of the toll has been increasingly questioned. It is prohibitively expensive, claim many. It is patently unfair, say others.

The bridge and its toll remains a popular conversation topic. One question inevitably surfaces: wasn't there a promise to scrap the toll once the cost of construction had been covered? And hasn't the debt been repaid by now?

The answers to these key questions are contained within the financial accounts held by the city council. They are statistics that have now been obtained and analysed by the Daily Echo. And, while the results of our inquiry will surprise some, many more will no doubt be dismayed.

Controversial For they confirm the controversial toll is very much here to stay - and will actually increase in future.

Any statistical analysis must start, inevitably, with the cost of construction of the bridge.

Itchen Bridge cost £12.2m to build including the cost of land purchase and fees. This cost was entirely funded by Southampton City Council, mainly from loans and capital receipts. Broken down, the council raised loans of £5.3m with the balance of £6.9m coming from capital receipts already received.

So where did the toll come in?

In short, the Act of Parliament which enabled the structure's construction - The Southampton Corporation Act 1973 - also permitted the setting of tolls.

Further, since the bridge was always seen as a local facility, the act required that toll levels be set to influence the volume of traffic using the bridge and protect the environment on either side - particularly Portsmouth Road.

It is estimated the toll has generated an income of £50m since 1977 (£3.4m was raised last year alone) and some of this is used for on-going bridge maintenance.

So, in a nutshell, a bridge that cost £12m has generated £50m. This, of course, is the essential nub of the motorist's wrath. How can continued tolls be justified?

Firstly, documents of the time and Echo archives reveal there was never a promise' to scrap the toll once loans were repaid - a point confirmed this week by the council.

Further, money is still owed on the bridge. It was estimated the original construction loans would be paid off in 2016 subject to interest rate fluctuations so repayments will continue until at least then. The original length of the loan was based on the useful life' of the asset and the rate at which local authority loans are repaid is governed by law. However the council is quick to point out the usefulness' of the bridge will not expire in 2016 since the on-going maintenance programme will extend its life "well into the future".

Bombshell Crucially, it also appears the link between toll revenue and construction debt repayment is, in any case, a widespread public misconception. Indeed, the council insists the toll exists for wider revenue generating and traffic management functions.

A spokeswoman explained: "All surpluses from the Itchen Bridge contribute to the General Fund which supports many of the council's public services."

She then added this bombshell: "If this contribution were to cease, then Southampton residents would face a council tax rise of approximately 3.7 per cent above the normal rise to cover the loss of income."

On the vehicle management point, she said: "The tolls are used to manage traffic flows across the bridge.

"The expectation therefore is that the toll will continue to be collected for the foreseeable future. Just to re-iterate, if the tolls are taken away, firstly there would be traffic chaos around the bridge area with larger trucks using the bridge constantly as they currently pay a very high price to dissuade them from using this route.

"Secondly, every household in the city would have to pay an additional 3.7 per cent council tax to make up for the lost income."

Further, the toll will go up too.

The spokeswoman said: "It is certain that the fee will increase over time, but, just as the toll is there to regulate traffic flow, so there needs to be clear evidence of increased flow to justify putting the toll up, and this evidence comes from the traffic flow data that is continuously collected."

The council added local people can also benefit from a substantial discount on the toll. In this way, the council believes it is reasonable that bridge users from outside the city continue to contribute to the cost of its upkeep while local people enjoy the benefits the crossing brings. Without the toll, the financial burden would fall exclusively on local people.

Meanwhile politicians of all parties appear to agree that the toll continues to play both an important financial and traffic management role.

Tory finance spokesman, Councillor Jeremy Moulton, believes council tax would have to go up by more than 3.7 per cent if the toll was removed: "We have looked into this in the past and are not proposing to scrap the charge because we would have to raise everyone's council tax by about five per cent.

"Its primary function is without doubt to generate revenue although it may have some benefits in managing traffic flows."

Labour group leader Councillor June Bridle added setting the right fee was always a "balancing act".

"It's a very effective traffic management tool. If we ended it, Woolston would come to a standstill," she said.

Councillor Bridle added she wanted to see some of the cash raised from tolls spent on improving the lights on the bridge.

Council leader Adrian Vinson said: "Any surplus revenue contributes to meeting other key priorities including things such as highway maintenance.

Asked about the level of fees he added: "I believe our present policies are effective."

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