A special fund has been set up for motorists stung by fines when using the Tyne Tunnel.
The river crossing has been plagued by complaints following the introduction of the cashless ‘free flow’ model in November.
Now a top figure in North East transport has revealed cash-strapped drivers could receive help from a new “hardship” scheme, but ruled out forgiving unpaid charges over fears of legal action.
“The penalty charge system was agreed with the [government, which] agreed that the level of penalty was fair,” said Carl Johnson, vice chairman North East Joint Transport Committee and deputy mayor of North Tyneside Council.
“I’ve agreed with [Tyne Tunnel operator TT2] and Transport North East that we should absolutely introduce a hardship fund.
“Anyone who goes through the tunnel and gets a penalty and can’t afford to pay will get that fine written off, if they can show it will cause them financial hardship.
“We ensure all cases are reviewed carefully and sensitively and a number of first time offenders have had fines removed.”
The minimum pre-paid top-up for an account to use the river crossing has been reduced from £10 - £5, while anyone who drives through without an account has until midnight the following day to pay.
Motorists who fail to cough up are issued with a £60 charge, reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days, or increased to £100 if not settled within 28 days.
Speaking at Thursday’s full council meeting, Cllr Johnson insisted the scheme has been the right choice for the area, after carbon emissions fell by 90% as a result of improved traffic flows.
Conservatives on the council used the meeting to push for an overhaul of the new system, including smaller fines and more time to pay them.
Tory councillor Liam Bones cited a petition started by Labour activist Gary Spedding calling for changes which has been signed almost 11,000 times, insisting it was not a “party political issue”, pointing also to South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck’s intervention in Parliament over the issue.
However, his party’s motion calling for changes was defeated 28 votes to nine by the Labour dominated authority.