THE opening shots have been fired in a bitter dispute over a proposed new Tyne crossing.

A public inquiry chaired by Government inspector Stuart Nixon at Jarrow Community Association was started yesterday and is expected to last up to six weeks.

According to transport bosses, the crossing between Jarrow and East Howdon, is needed to tackle congestion, improve safety and provide a boost for economic growth.

But protestors who staged a demonstration outside the hearing argue it will cause environmental damage and falling property values.

Opening the case for the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Authority, Stephen Sauvain QC said: "The New Tyne Crossing will meet a longstanding problem of congestion, improve safety and provide the impetus for economic growth and regeneration along the A19 corridor."

The hearing was told the tunnel would carry two lanes of traffic southbound across the Tyne with the approaches to the existing tunnel being modified to carry traffic northbound.

The existing Tyne Tunnel carries about 34,000 vehicles each weekday with the majority being local traffic.

The tunnel runs at capacity for up to five hours a day with a knock-on effect on surrounding roads.

Mr Sauvain said that this problem would be addressed with the second tunnel, while also reducing traffic on bridge crossings.

He said dedicated northbound and southbound traffic would also reduced the risk of accidents inside the tunnel.

Public transport, which is presently deterred from using the tunnel crossing because of the delays and timetabling problems would have a dedicated link bypassing the toll plaza - and would be able to use the tunnel free.

Mr Sauvain said the tunnel project itself would create an estimated 270 full time jobs in the construction industry, as well as 108 in related industries.

He said: "The A19 corridor has the potential to provide huge employment benefits to the region, with many sites already identified, and a significant number of those being on brownfield sites."

Among the bodies supporting the scheme are One NorthEast, the North East Chamber of Commerce, and Freight Transport Association.

There have been 605 letters of objection. The Tyne Crossings Alliance, which is fighting the proposals, includes the Green Party, Transport 2000, Friends of the Earth, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Tynebikes, Living Streets, and RoadPeace