IT has cost £7.1m and been in the pipeline for years, but Winchester’s new park and ride scheme is finally set to open.

Buses will start running at 7am on Monday (April 19) and could remove hundreds of cars from the city’s rush hour.

Hampshire County Council, which has built the 864-space scheme, said it was opening on time and on budget.

Yet proposals for Winchester’s second park and ride site at Hockley Link have been on the slipway for more than a decade.

The scheme took a back seat during the controversial extension of the current Bar End park and ride, which was finished in 2003.

It now provides 800 spaces, but council bosses reckon that there is demand in Winchester for double that amount.

One factor is that the new site, next to junction 11 of the M3, is on one of the busiest routes into Winchester.

The park and ride buses will also serve several of the city’s largest employers that are not covered by the current Bar End routes.

They include the Royal Hampshire County Hospital, the University of Winchester, Hampshire Constabulary’s HQ and Winchester Prison.

The university is backing the scheme and using its own cash to encourage staff to use it.

A university spokesman said: “We are running a pilot scheme open to all students and staff from when the new park and ride opens until the end of June.

“We will cover 50 per cent of the cost of the park and ride for those willing to trial the service.

“Depending on the number of students and staff using the park and ride we may seek to block book car parking places from the start of the new academic year in September at a reduced cost for users.”

The Royal Hampshire County Hospital has already reserved 300 spaces at Hockley Link to ease congestion on its Romsey Road site.

Its facilities senior operational manager, Lee Kinrade, said: “The Trust has been working very closely with the council on the development of the new park and ride.

“We have secured 300 spaces for staff and can offer these at half price until next May. We have well over 200 applications to use the new park and ride.”

Once the Hockley Link site opens, the buses, operated by Stagecoach, will run between the site and Bar End.

They will pass through Badger Farm, Romsey Road, Winchester Station, the city’s one-way system, The Broadway and Chesil Street.

The council has provided a bus waiting area, road improvements and landscaping works around Hockley Link.

It has even hung rope ‘bridges’ to allow dormice, which were already at the site, to cross from one tree to another without being run over.

Environmental groups are still against the scheme, arguing that it will not solve Winchester’s transport problems.

The city’s Friends of the Earth branch said it would mean that more short-stay visitors would use the central car parks instead of commuters. As a result, the number of trips into the city centre would rise.

The council has provided three charging points for electric vehicles at Hockley Link, the first of their kind in Hampshire.

County executive member for environment, Cllr Mel Kendal, said: “The council wants people who travel in Hampshire to have a choice of ways to get around.

“This investment represents a step forward for those who choose ‘green’ vehicles that are cheap to run.”

Electric cars will receive a 75 per cent discount on park and ride season tickets.

The daily charge will be £3, the same as Bar End, with a £1 discount after 10.30am and free parking after 4pm.