Ken Smith explains why the Clyde's Erskine Bridge will never recoup its investment

TO some it is simply the bridge to nowhere. It was built at a time when Erskine was forecast to become a booming new town on the banks of the Clyde.

In the end Erskine failed to develop, the forecast traffic for the Erskine Bridge failed to materialise, and its construction debt has soared to many times the millions it cost to build.

The Erskine Bridge became the white elephant of Scotland's road system, with civil servants at the Scottish Office admitting that it would never recoup its costs in tolls.

It was impossible to make the tolls cost-effective, as pushing them too high would simply make drivers go elsewhere. Unlike the Skye Bridge, there are alternative routes.

Yet the tolls will remain for at least another five years, says the Scottish Office, angering local communities, who say they should be abolished to boost traffic and tempt motorists away from the Clyde's congested crossings at the Clyde Tunnel and the Kingston Bridge.

There is also a darker side to the Erskine Bridge. Like many crossings around the world it became a magnet for unfortunates considering suicide, who would take one last look at the bright lights of Glasgow before plunging into the Clyde. Some 17 people were dying on average every year on the bridge, prompting the Government to spend thousands of pounds on additional security cameras and higher parapets at either end.

The bridge cost #10m and was opened in 1971 by Princess Anne with the traditional snipping of the ribbon. But the cost did not end there. Three years ago a further #5m had to be spent on resurfacing work, adding to the mounting debt.

The Scottish Office saw most of the income swallowed up by the cost of providing 22 toll collectors, six supervisors, and four administrative assistants to take in the money.

It even considered sacking the collectors and putting in automatic machines instead. In the end it decided on privatising the collection of the tolls, which made some savings but did little to reduce the debt.

Perhaps its most controversial customer has been the nuclear convoys taking warheads to be fitted into the Polaris submarines based on the Clyde. Protesters would try to stop the convoys on the bridge to highlight what they saw as the potential dangers of using a bridge for such cargoes.

But their protests never caused much of a hold-up. There was never enough traffic on the bridge to do so.