M4 relief road 'to be financed by Severn Bridge tolls'
Construction of a £1bn M4 relief road in south Wales could be paid for by the Severn Bridge tolls, the Welsh government has said.
Finance Minister Jane Hutt confirmed the possible plan to MPs on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee.
She said negotiations with the UK government over the responsibility for the crossings were "very constructive".
Ms Hutt said she also hoped the cost of tolls could be cut, particularly for lorries and regular users.
The two bridges are due to return to public ownership in 2018.
However, UK ministers say "outstanding government costs" of £88m will then need be recouped, and they estimate that can be done within another two years.
Chancellor George Osborne said during his spending review statement in June that he would shortly give details of "impressive" M4 relief road plans around Newport.
Transport Minister Edwina Hart then announced a public consultation on the road would begin in September although details of the method of funding had not been confirmed.
At a meeting of the committee at the Welsh assembly on Thursday, Ms Hutt said: "There is a recognition in the UK government of the importance of the crossings to Wales.
"This is about the infrastructure of the UK and we need to sort it out urgently.
"I would urge the UK government to treat this as a priority.
"With goodwill we can succeed," she said.
Ms Hutt set out the Welsh government's aims if it took control of the bridges.
She said: "Our priorities would be maintenance, reducing the tolls and alleviating the burden on the economy, and also providing a possible source of income, but on the grounds that this should be to support major road infrastructure, and that goes back to the enhancement of the M4."
However, UK Transport Minister Stephen Hammond told the Welsh affairs committee in June that no decision had been made over ownership of the bridges or its tolls but that any plans would have to benefit motorists from both Wales and England.
Iestyn Davies from the Federation of Small Businesses said his organisation was "vehemently opposed" to bridge tolls being used to fund a relief road.
"We believe it is grossly unfair that small businesses and other motorists should be forced to bear the financial burden of projects such as this," he said.
"Such projects should be funded by appropriate Welsh government borrowing powers, as suggested by the Silk Commission, rather than hitting the pockets of hard-pressed road users."
Byron Davies, the Conservatives' Shadow Transport Minister in the assembly, said: "Devolving the Severn Bridges to the assembly to reduce the tolls and divide the remaining revenue between bridge maintenance and investment in road infrastructure would in our view be a very positive move.
"The only reason we are seeing any progress on the M4 relief road is because of the intervention of the Conservative-led coalition [at Westminster] and the chancellor's commitment to what he sees as one of the UK's most important road schemes."
But Plaid Cymru transport spokesman Lord Elis Thomas said he was "surprised" by the finance minister's suggestion, and the assumption tolls would continue after the bridges came back into public ownership.
'Alleviate the burden'
He pointed out that the previous Labour-Plaid coalition Welsh government had dropped plans for an M4 relief road in 2009 and proposed alternative improvements around Newport.
"The plans we put in place have simply not been given time to work, and we hope that those existing plans can be completed and given time to work, rather than just introducing a brand new stretch of motorway, which could be environmentally damaging," he said.
Suggestions in April that an M4 relief road might be built and financed as a toll road were dismissed.
A Welsh government spokesperson said: "The finance minister made clear this morning that should the UK Government devolve responsibility for the Severn Crossings to the Welsh government, the first priority for the revenue raised would be to ensure effective maintenance of the crossings.
"With that secure, our intention would be to reduce the levels of the tolls and alleviate the burden on the economy.
"The remaining toll income could contribute to major road infrastructure enhancements."