Tuesday, 7 July 1925
Dáil Éireann Debate
MINISTER for LOCAL GOVERNMENT and PUBLIC HEALTH (Mr. Burke): During the debate on the Estimates of my Department, and on several occasions subsequently, questions were put to me as to what is the policy of my Department with regard to the roads. For one reason or another it has been very difficult to formulate any definite policy. One reason that makes it rather difficult is that another Minister, the Minister for Finance, is very largely involved in this matter, and it is not until we have had an opportunity of consulting with him on this very important matter, involving questions of revenue and finance generally, which will take us a long time to consider, that we can hammer out a definite policy. The Minister for Industry and Commerce is also to some extent involved. Up to the present, therefore, I have not been able to come before the Dáil with a clear-cut definite policy, but as I gave an undertaking that I would make a statement before the end of the session I will do my best to carry it out and will deal generally with the question of roads.
It is frequently stated that the transport problem is due to the growth of mechanical road traffic. This is but part of the truth, for at no time in the history of the country can it be said that there was a liberal expenditure on road maintenance. Even as late as the year 1914 the average cost of maintenance to the ratepayers was less than £15 per mile, while in 1924, although wages had risen in the meantime about 150 per cent., the expenditure on road maintenance averaged in local rates less than £30 per mile—a rise of about 100 per cent. on the 1914 figure. In  fourteen out of the twenty-seven administrative counties the percentage increase over the 1914 figures was even less (Counties of Carlow, Donegal, Kerry, Kilkenny, Leitrim, Leix, Longford, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary N.R., and Westmeath). To tar a road to-day costs about £120 per mile for a width of twelve feet. That will give an idea as to the increase in the cost of road maintenance as compared with the proportionate increase in rates.
The roads were not in a condition to withstand the heavy mechanical traffic or even the lighter motor car—the latter injures the crust while the former injures both crust and foundation. Some years ago a scheme of motor transport for agricultural districts was projected, but the proposal fell through because the roads selected were found unsuitable. No such consideration in recent years has retarded the development of road transport, although, in fact, most of the roads are quite unsuitable for heavy mechanical traffic. The revenue derived from the taxation of motor vehicles represents about one-third of the sum expended from rates on the upkeep of the roads, but the damage which they inflict upon the roads must be far in excess of this proportion. There are two courses open, namely, either to place a high tax on the vehicle doing most damage and to expend it on road improvement and maintenance, or to restrict the weight and speed. The existing taxation upon the private car scarcely requires increasing from the point of view of damage, nor is it necessary to put a further general restriction on its speed. There is a large body of opinion in favour of allowing a speed in excess of twenty miles an hour. The taxation of the heavy commercial vehicle is admittedly inadequate for the damage done. There is no doubt that a greater tax must be placed on the heavy vehicle, but such a tax must not be so great as to drive the lorry off the road altogether. Another remedy must also be applied, and that is by way of reduction in the laden weight. At present the maximum laden weight of a heavy motor car is twelve tons. The Roads Advisory Committee recommend  that for vehicles not yet used on the roads of the State the maximum laden weight of the vehicle should be fixed at nine tons, and that vehicles already in use in excess of this weight might be allowed to use the roads under a licence at special charges. I think that there is a large body of opinion which would be disposed to reduce the maximum weight still lower than nine tons.
It is proposed to apply this policy in regard to heavy motor cars; the fixing of the maximum laden weight at 9 tons can be done immediately by regulation. The other part of the recommendation requires legislation and will be dealt with in the next Finance Bill. Many of these vehicles are already licensed for the present motor tax year which ends on the 31st December.
On the question of restricting speed nothing can be done usefully by regulation or fresh legislation. If the existing regulations were enforced they are ample to meet all requirements, and the matter has been specially brought before the Minister for Justice. The legal maximum speeds of a heavy lorry vary from five miles to twelve miles per hour, according to weight and nature of tyre. We all recognise in a great many cases the limit is exceeded by heavy lorries. The existing regulations regarding widths of tyres of heavy motor cars apply only to tyres other than those made of a soft or elastic material. In no case can the width of an iron tyre be less than five inches, and if the regulations are complied with it may be as much as 14½ inches in certain cases.
It was not considered necessary to make regulations regarding widths of rubber tyres, as it was felt that the matter could safely be left in the hands of the manufacturers. This reason still holds for the pneumatic tyre, but a practice has grown up of fitting narrow solid rubber tyres to broad rims. Although the Committee do not recommend any alteration in the existing regulations regarding tyres of motor vehicles it is felt that a regulation with respect to the widths of rubber tyres may be necessary, and the matter is at present being examined.
In dealing with the question of the width of tyres, the position of the horse-drawn  vehicle fitted with iron tyres cannot be overlooked. Many such vehicles carry heavy loads, especially timber, and it will be necessary to lay down a minimum width in these cases. Even a concrete road cannot stand up to narrow iron tyres bearing heavy loads. Legislation will, however, be required, and a period of at least two or three years allowed to enable the necessary alterations to be made.
A copy of the Roads Advisory Committee's report on motor taxation is being circulated, but until the recommendations have been fully considered by the Minister for Finance no announcement thereon can be made. It is obvious that if a tax on motor spirit were substituted for the present system it would have to be higher than is generally believed unless the Road Fund is to suffer loss. In order to get the same revenue that we have from the present tax it would be necessary to allow for a 30 per cent. loss for non-compliance. That is the usual estimate with regard to motor taxation.
Mr. BURKE: It would probably mean a great deal more. It would mean that to bring the receipts up to the present figure, assuming you would have general compliance with the law, you would have to allow 30 per cent. more for non-compliance. Seeing that an increase and not a dimunition is required in the Fund, if it is to meet to any considerable extent the cost of providing roads for modern traffic, any scheme which would involve loss cannot be considered.
I may say that, personally, I think a motor spirit tax has very many advantages over the present system. It is one, however, that requires further consideration. As I say, I am not in a position to pronounce definitely in favour of one tax or another at present. It will ultimately be a matter more for the Ministry of Finance than for the Ministry of Local Government.
On the general question of carrying out a comprehensive road scheme, I have, with the assistance of the Roads Advisory Committee and Chief Roads  Engineer, settled on a scheme for the improvement of what may be regarded as the national highways of the State. This scheme has been placed before the Department of Finance, and I am at present awaiting a decision in the matter. The scheme contemplates the improvement of approximately 1,500 miles out of the 4,000 miles of trunk roads and would extend probably over a period of three years. The object in view is to bring this 1,500 miles to a standard which would give a road life of eight to ten years, and while a provisional estimate of the cost has been made at £3,820,000, a close survey of the roads will be necessary before it is possible to reach a strictly accurate estimate of the amount required. If sufficient funds were available roads might be laid in asphalt or concrete, but except in very rare cases, we cannot hope to lay down anything more enduring than tar-bitumen macadam. In the extremely heavy traffic areas a superior form of construction will be adopted. Besides surface improvement the scheme embraces the strengthening of foundations, where necessary, the removal of dangerous corners, the cutting of hedges and trees, the widening, kerbing and drainage of roads, easing of gradients, improvement of culverts, and provision of warning and direction posts. The scheme would be carried out by the local authorities, and when the specification and estimate have been approved for each road or section of road the local authority would be required to invite tenders for the work: they  would also be permitted to submit proposals to have the work carried out by direct labour.
In considering the details of the scheme, special care will be taken to meet the requirements of each area. For instance, in the case of roads near cities and large towns where traffic is particularly heavy an effort will be made to provide a greater width of carriageway than in the open country.
I do not know to what extent, if at all, this scheme can be financed by a special grant from the Central Fund, and I have suggested to the Department of Finance that the revenues of the Road Fund might be anticipated and provision made accordingly, as in the case of last year, by a Road Fund Advances Act.
I hope to be able to put this scheme into operation, but apart from the question of finance, one of the greatest difficulties which Local Authorities will encounter is the provision of road plant of an adequate nature. This difficulty, may, however, be got over by the scheme being largely carried out by contractors already in possession of plant or who may find it in their interest to acquire a large amount of plant.
As soon as I am informed whether the scheme can be financed the matter will be forthwith initiated with the Local Authorities. That is as far as I am in a position to deal with the question of road policy at present.
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