TOLLS on the Severn crossings should be slashed when the bridges are taken over by the government.

  That's the view of a report published today by the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee following its investigation into the future of the bridges.

But it expressed disappointment that the government was unable to freeze the tolls for 2011 in response to the economic crisis.

The panel of MPs, which include committee chairman and Tory Monmouth MP David Davies and his Newport East colleague Jessica Morden, also called for a smoother high-tech payment system.

Their investigation, carried out over last few months, looked into the effect the tolls have on the economy of Wales and what will happen when the agreement for a private company to run the bridges ends.

The crossings are expected to be brought into government ownership by 2017.

  The transfer to public ownership gives the government a "unique opportunity for a new tolling regime," the committee said.

Once that happens tolls "should be reduced", while discounts for people and businesses dependent on the bridge for their livelihoods could also be put in place.

But the government must not be tempted to use the bridge as a "cash cow", the MPs argued.

  The committee said tolls could be reduced from their current level of £5.50 for a car to as little as £1.50 while still covering the bridge's running costs of £16 million a year.

The regulations governing the tolls mean the government is unable to impose its own charges now - or freeze them in 2011 - without leaving the taxpayer with a bill for the loss of income.

The committee said there was little measurable evidence of the impact of charges on businesses in the area as successive governments have failed to investigate it.

Mr Davies said the committee was concerned by anecdotal reports that the level of the toll has put some people off investing in Wales, calling for more hard evidence on their impact.

"The Severn Crossings are a vital link for the people and business located in South Wales and beyond," he said.

ACTION should be taken by the government now to introduce a fast new payment system based on recognising number plates, the report added.

Committee chairman David Davies said the antiquated system that was in place before cards were introduced in September gave "visitors to Wales a poor first impression of the country."

He said card payments would probably not have been introduced at all if Wales had not hosted the Ryder Cup this year.

  But the government should not stop there and should invest now in a system that would allow bridge users to drive through without stopping, Mr Davies said.

Credit cards could then be directly linked to vehicles using modern number plate recognition technologies.

  Mr Davies said the cost could be recouped once the bridges are brought into public ownership.