CRUNCH time for the £431 million second Mersey crossing arrived this week with the start of a long-awaited public inquiry.

Inspector Alan Gray will scrutinise the Mersey Gateway project set to create 4,640 new jobs, reduce congestion on the traffic-clogged existing bridge and boost the economy.

Council leader Clr Tony McDermott said: “This is a big day for us.

“It’s very exciting, something we’ve been working on for more than 15 years.

“We have carried out a lot of research and consultation and we are now putting this to the test.

“Local people are very worried about tolls but we are confident we can get a regime that will offer a system of discounts to local people who criss cross the bridge for work, shops and the hospital.

“We’ve had enquiries from top engineers all over the world waiting to build it.”

The inquiry, expected to last for six weeks, is being held at Stobart Stadium.

Around 70 people attended the opening yesterday, with both sides lined up to present boxes of evidence.

David Parr, chief executive of Halton Council, said: “This is another milestone in our journey.

“We are very confident we have a powerful and persuasive case.

“We are hoping to do our best to convince the inspector so we can get started and deliver something that will change people’s lives.

“This is a bridge to prosperity not just a piece of iconic infrastructure.”

Halton MP Derek Twigg said: “The key thing is to get a decision.

“I will continue to press for more resources for it.

“I will fight for the best deal for local people.”

Lillian Burns was the first objector to speak for The Alliance, representing Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the NW Transport Activist Roundtable.

She said: “It would appear that all the structural works could be over £1 billion, not the half billion usually quoted.

“The new bridge is due to open in 2015 and the operator only has 27 years, until 2042 to recover costs and make a profit and then hand it back to Halton Council.”

She claims it will not be commercially viable.

“From evidence of the M6 toll, HGVs won’t use it unless they have to.

“M6 Thelwall watch out, you won’t know what’s hit you if the new bridge is built and tolled.”

Instead, she proposed “a very modest toll” should be levied on the existing bridge and the money ploughed into public transport, instead of investing in a second crossing.

Asbestos and arsenic, she said, are among lethal substances buried in the ground in Widnes and Runcorn, posing dangers during construction.

Pollution, noise and global warming concern campaigners.

“The current bridge would be reduced from four lanes to two but the new crossing would be a new motorway in all but name with six lanes of traffic and a hard shoulder.”

She said expert witnesses will be challenging all issues including the environmental impact on the river, traffic flows and the greenbelt in the coming weeks.