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10:40 - 03 October 2006

A Greater Bristol Transport Authority could be formed in as little as two years - and could help create more local bus and train routes, more regular services and may bring down prices.It is hoped the move would result in a surge in the number of people using public transport, which would help resolve Bristol's congestion problems.

Labour's transport secretary Douglas Alexander told delegates at the party conference last week that new legislation will be unveiled within weeks to give councils the power to ensure that privately-owned bus companies plan routes and fares that serve local communities better.

If these ideas are driven forward, it is believed a Greater Bristol Transport Authority would then be formed to ensure the new powers are enforced effectively in Bristol.

The authority would be formed predominantly from councillors from the four local authorities - Bristol, South Gloucestershire, B &NES and North Somerset - and would therefore offer a broader and more unified approach to assessing and tackling the area's transport needs.

Mr Alexander said: "To ensure the private sector delivers the bus services our communities demand I will act to empower local communities. I will act to give the local transport authorities that need them real powers to make a real difference. This means local solutions designed for local needs."

Transport 2000 spokesman David Redgewell said: "I suspect there will be a white paper in November to help take forward Mr Alexander's plans.

"And in order to regulate the buses, you will need a delivery mechanism and that would be creating the Greater Bristol Transport Authority. That would mean a more unified approach to trains as well as buses and I think we could see that happening in around two years' time.

"Cities that already have such an authority, like Manchester, have seen huge benefits. It should enable the authority to impose strong conditions on time-keeping, reliability and cleanliness as well as deciding on routes.

"I suspect 80 per cent of the bus routes will still be run by First but the fares could come down if there is investment from the authority and that has been the case in some other cities with such authorities."

Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, says she has been putting the case for a unified transport authority to government ministers and has had a "very encouraging" response.

She said: "Transport does not stop at county borders. Bristol has suffered in the past because of the lack of a unified authority - schemes such as Park and Ride have been hampered by working between various authorities. There now seems to be an understanding this could really happen."

Another campaign group - Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways - visited transport experts in Birmingham recently and found more than 50 per cent of commuters travel into Birmingham by public transport, compared to just 11 per cent in Bristol.

FOSBR chairman Peter Gould said the main difference between the two cities was that Birmingham has a Passenger Transport Executive, which provides a more-integrated public transport system.

The four local authorities have already worked together on a number of schemes, including setting up a Joint Local Transport Plan, which runs until 2011 and includes extending the Showcase bus routes. However, campaigners say these and future schemes would be delivered more effectively with a unified authority.

In July ministers approved 42 million to help fund the new bus routes.

Transport giant First Group will contribute a further 20 million.

A spokesman for First said: "We have been working very effectively with the local authorities and if we can roll out that success even further we would be very interested, but it is difficult to say any more until the Government's plans become clearer."

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