Wednesday, 7 March 2007
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen): This Bill represents an important step in ensuring that we in Ireland can implement the most modern and efficient systems for levying tolls on our national roads. It also puts forward measures that should further improve the efficient and cost-effective delivery of the national roads programme within the framework of Transport 21.
The principal purpose of the Bill is to provide the necessary statutory basis to facilitate the implementation of free-flow, open-road tolling, also known as barrier-free tolling, on toll-based national road schemes, through the provision of appropriate deterrents against the non-payment of tolls. The Bill also provides for the redesignation of certain high-quality dual carriageways as motorways; the provision of service and rest areas on the national road network; some technical amendments regarding various sections of the Roads Act 1993; and several amendments to the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. I regard its enactment before the dissolution of the Dáil and Seanad as essential.
Before I speak on the purpose of each major section, it is important to put the Bill into its proper strategic context. The Bill is about ensuring the substantial investment the Government is making in the nation’s motorways and national roads delivers real and sustainable benefits to our citizens. The investment in our national roads, including the M50, is guided by the principles set down in Transport 21 and the national development plan. It is therefore worthwhile to spend a little time setting out the background of why this Bill is important and giving Members a clear context of where the legislation, relatively brief as it is, fits into the overall transport investment picture.
I will therefore speak about developments on Dublin’s M50, including the buy-out of the West Link concession; the national roads programme; and national roads under Transport 21. I will then speak about each of the main sections of the Bill before making some concluding remarks.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to facilitate the introduction of free-flow tolling on the M50.  Barrier-free tolling is the centrepiece of the Bill. However, that in itself is not a panacea for the traffic problems experienced daily by commuters using the M50 and living in Dublin and its hinterlands. The lifting of the barriers is only one part of the Government’s M50 strategy. The Government and the National Roads Authority, NRA, are fully committed to improving the level of service provided to motorists on the M50 and believe it will be best achieved through the M50 upgrade, including the upgrade of the interchanges, coupled with the move to barrier-free tolling.
I would like to take the opportunity to inform the Seanad of the progress that we have made and are making on the M50. The M50 upgrade project involves the widening of around 32 km of motorway from two to three lanes in each direction, with a fourth auxiliary lane in places, from the M50-M1 interchange near Dublin Airport through to the Sandyford interchange. Critically, it also involves the upgrade of ten junctions along its length. I have said previously that there is no quick fix for congestion on the M50. However, when put in place, those three elements — barrier-free tolling, widening of the carriageway and the upgrading of the junctions — will deliver a very significant improvement in the quality of the service on the M50.
The total cost of the M50 upgrade is approximately €1 billion, and it is being undertaken in three phases. Phase 1 comprises the widening of the carriageway between the N4 — Galway Road roundabout — and Ballymount interchanges and the upgrading of the N4, N7 and Ballymount interchanges. Work has commenced and is expected to have been completed by the middle of 2008. Phase 2 comprises the widening of 24 km of the M50, other than the West Link section between the N3 and N4 junctions, and the upgrade of a further seven interchanges. The NRA aims to award the contract for phase 2 in the middle of 2007 and expects construction to be completed in 2010.
Phase 3 comprises the widening of the West Link section between the N3 and N4 junctions, which is expected to commence very shortly and be completed by the middle of 2008. Once complete, the upgrade will bring significant benefits, as it will expand the capacity of the M50 to deal with 50% more traffic than at present; improve average peak-hour speeds; reduce traffic congestion on the radial routes of N3, N4 and N7; and improve traffic flow on the entire Dublin road network.
All the agencies, including South Dublin County Council, Dublin City Council, the National Roads Authority and the Garda are co-operating very closely to ensure everything possible is done to mitigate the impact of the upgrade work on traffic flows on the M50. I am satisfied no effort is being spared by those responsible for traffic management and law enforcement to alleviate the problems on the M50 as far as possible, and I thank them for their efforts.
I am confident that, with the M50 upgrade complete by 2010, traffic congestion and delays on the M50 will be reduced and road-users will be provided with an improved level of service. Road-users will begin to see significant benefits next year when the first phases of the motorway upgrade are complete and the barrier-free tolling, which I will shortly describe in more detail, is in place.
Another important step in resolving congestion on the M50 is the decision to remove NTR’s tolling concession on the West Link. For commercial and strategic reasons, the NRA, with my agreement as Minister, decided last year to end the arrangement with National Toll Roads under a 1987 agreement for the collection of tolls on the West Link up to 2020. Discussions have been ongoing for some months between the NRA and NTR about the details of its removal from the West Link. NTR must be compensated in line with the 1987 agreement, which is a binding contract. However, the compensation arrangement will not leave taxpayers any worse off than they would have been had the agreement been allowed to run until 2020. As Members will hear when I expand on the topic, they will be better off. The decision to remove NTR was taken to allow the NRA to develop and manage the M50 to provide the best possible service to motorists.
Ending the relationship with NTR now, rather than waiting until 2020, has significant advantages. It will allow the removal in 2008 of the toll plaza on the West Link and its replacement by a barrier-free tolling arrangement along the same stretch of motorway. The introduction of barrier-free tolling will coincide with the completion of the upgrade of the M50 section between the Ballymount and N4 interchanges. From the middle of 2008, the NRA will be free to introduce measures to address the congestion difficulties on the M50. The middle of 2008 represents the earliest point by which the barrier-free system and equipment can be designed, built, tested and commissioned. By removing NTR now rather than in 2020, the State, not NTR, will be the beneficiary of the increased toll revenue as a result of the increase in traffic volumes following the upgrade.
Senators will no doubt be pleased to hear the negotiations should be concluded very shortly. The general terms of the agreement have been in the public domain for a few weeks and I can confirm that the intention is to pay an annual amount of €50 million plus CPI to NTR until 2020. I re-emphasise that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is a good deal for the Government and the taxpayer. We are not paying over the odds and the benefits it gives us are worth the expense involved. The toll revenue from the barrier-free toll will be used to fund the compensation to NTR as well as contributing towards the funding of phases 2 and 3 of the M50 upgrade, and the cost of introducing barrier-free tolling. The overall upgrade is expected to cost in the order of €1 billion.
The significant ongoing developments and plans for the M50 must be placed in their proper strategic context. That context is, first, the national roads programme and, at a higher level, the Government’s blueprint for transport investment over the next decade, Transport 21. I will now talk briefly about both of these programmes.
Recently, the Government published a visionary national development plan which will have a far-reaching positive impact across the economy and society. In the national development plan, the Government explicitly reaffirms its commitment to the delivery of the Transport 21 investment programme. The only significant change proposed is to bring forward from later in the programme into 2008, 2009 and 2010 a total expenditure of €400 million which will be used primarily to accelerate work on the Galway to Limerick section of the Atlantic road corridor linking the gateways from Letterkenny to Waterford. This is concrete evidence of the Government’s support for the national spatial strategy and also reflects the progress on advance planning being made by the National Roads Authority, NRA.
The NDP builds on Transport 21 and confirms our commitment to seek to address the investment now necessary to maintain national competitiveness within a sustainable economic and budgetary framework. Transport 21 is the strategic framework underpinning all road investment in Ireland over the next decade. In preparing Transport 21 in late 2005, one of the first tasks was to consider the implications of the considerable economic and social changes that have occurred in Ireland over the past ten years. As Senators will be aware, residential and commuting patterns in Ireland have changed significantly since the mid-1990s. The reasons for this are varied. They include the growth of the economy, the overall increase in population, especially in the hinterland areas around our cities, the growth in employment and increasing car ownership and usage.
It is worth highlighting some of the data to illustrate the changes that have occurred. For example, since 1995, the population has grown by 14% to more than 4.1 million. There are now 500,000 more people living in Ireland than was the case in 1995. The number of new houses being built each year has increased from approximately 30,000 in 1995 to around 77,000 currently, with a significant proportion in the hinterland areas around our cities. Employment has grown by nearly 50% from 1.3 million to more than 1.9 million. There are now 600,000 more people working in Ireland today. Those figures only refer to the recent past.
Private car ownership has increased by around 50% from less than 1 million cars in 1995 to more than 2 million today. However, our car ownership rates are still low for a developed economy. The car remains the main mode of travel to work and accounts for around 62% of all trips. Distances travelled to work are increasing, with 18% of the workforce now travelling more than 15 miles to work compared with 11% in 1996. In addition, we have seen huge increases in the tonnage of goods transported nationally by road, from 85 million to 283 million tonnes over the ten-year period to 2004. We have seen substantial increases in the numbers of people and the amount of goods passing through our airports and ports.
All of these trends have a significant impact on transport policy and the provision of transport infrastructure and services. All of these trends are in many respects positive. We all want more employment, more houses being built and a society that can afford to buy newer and better cars. As I have said before, it is the impact of these developments that is causing quality of life problems which may threaten our continued growth and prosperity. This is most visible is the congestion experienced regularly by many users of the M50.
Transport 21 is about putting in place the infrastructure and systems needed to help to continue our success. It is a programme of work which would see a modern, state-of-the-art, sustainable transport network being rolled out and delivered in the years ahead. Transport 21 will involve transport investment of more than €34 billion over ten years, the most significant infrastructural investment in the history of the State. As such, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to identify the sort of infrastructure we want and need for the decades ahead.
Transport 21 provides the basis for an integrated transport network. This is a key development. National roads are one of the two key elements of transport strategy under Transport 21. The other is public transport. During the period covered by Transport 21, we will see the transformation of the transport network in the greater Dublin area, mainly through the expansion of rail-based public transport infrastructure and through providing increased bus capacity and more quality bus corridors. We will see the implementation of an integrated transport system for Dublin to include DART extensions, seven new Luas light rail projects, two metro lines, an underground interconnector rail tunnel which will allow the various commuter rail services to be linked and expanded, and a major hub at St. Stephen’s Green integrating metro, commuter rail and light rail services in the city.
Ireland has changed radically in the past ten years and will continue to do so. Ten years from now, Ireland will undoubtedly be a country with a larger and wealthier population, higher car ownership rates and greater public transport demands. Transport 21 will allow us to accommodate these inevitable developments, reduce congestion and the everyday hassle experienced by commuters, underpin our economic development and improve our quality of life.
Our success in the coming years will be fundamentally dependent on our ability to achieve a 21st century infrastructure for a 21st century Ireland. Connecting communities through an integrated transport system is at the core of Transport 21. At the launch of Transport 21, I said that all involved needed to focus on delivery and that I would be happy to be judged on how well the plan was delivered. With this I mind, it might be worth reflecting on the first 15 months or so of the programme and, especially given the context of the Bill we are considering, the progress achieved under the national roads programme.
Transport 21 builds on the successes of the national roads programme achieved over recent years. This success has been made possible by the fact that Exchequer investment in national roads during the lifetime of the current Government has been at an all time high. A total of almost €9.5 billion has been spent on road construction and maintenance over the period 1997 to 2006.
Transport 21 provides for a total investment of more than €16 billion over the period 2007 to 2015. This means that an average ongoing investment of more than €125 million per month will be made in our national roads. This investment will maintain the pace and momentum of the programme built up over recent years. Excellent progress has been made in the implementation of the national roads programme. Ireland’s national road network has been transformed in that time. Since 1997, more than 90 projects have been completed totalling more than 600 km. The length of the motorway network has more than trebled in that time, from 70 km in 1997 to almost 250 km today. The total combined length of motorways and dual carriageways has increased by more than 150%.
Some of the major road building projects funded by that investment include the completion of the M1 motorway to the Border, the completion of 50% of five major inter-urban routes to motorway standard with a further 20% in construction, the Jack Lynch tunnel in Cork, the Dublin Port tunnel, and numerous bypasses the length and breath of Ireland.
Not only is the network being transformed but so is the way in which road projects are being delivered. Most projects are now being delivered on time and on budget. They include 12 of the 14 schemes opened last year. I am glad to report that many schemes are being delivered ahead of time. These include the N8 Rathcormac-Fermoy bypass which was eight months ahead of schedule; the N21 Kinsale road interchange which was six months ahead; and the M1 Dundalk western bypass which was five months ahead.
The benefits of the record level of investment are evident. The elimination of long-standing bottlenecks in Kildare, Monasterevin, Cashel, Loughrea, Drogheda and elsewhere has been achieved. This has delivered substantial journey time savings and greater journey time certainty. The high quality network being put in place is contributing significantly to supporting our national competitiveness, job creation and the achievement of more balanced regional development. It will also deliver a positive road safety dividend as upgraded roads, especially motorway or dual carriageway standard roads, provide a much safer driving environment.
The development of our road network has played an important part in the record economic growth levels we have witnessed over the period, as a good road network facilitates competitiveness in the transport of goods through an improvement in overall transit times, safety levels and level of service.
Progress in the national roads programme has been excellent in recent years. However, progress in 2006, the first year of Transport 21, was better than excellent; it was truly exceptional. Last year was, in every way, a record year for Ireland’s national roads. The Government has hit the ground running in implementing the roads element of Transport 21. Some 14 projects were completed and open to traffic while a dozen more began construction, which represents more than three times the number of starts in the previous year. The total investment in our roads was €1.7 billion, some €90 million ahead of target.
Last year saw the completion of two major projects in Dublin, the Dublin Port tunnel and the Naas Road widening scheme. Work also started on the upgrading of the M50 and on two important national spatial strategy gateway projects, the Limerick tunnel and the Waterford city bypass. Work is currently in progress on 22 projects covering some 312 kilometres of roadway. A large number of other projects are at various stages of planning and it is worth pointing out that planning and statutory processes like environmental impact assessments and compulsory purchase can be as time consuming and almost as expensive as construction.
In the early years of Transport 21 investment in the national road network will focus on the completion of the five major inter-urban routes by 2010. After that the focus will shift towards the upgrading of the remainder of the national primary network with particular emphasis on the Atlantic corridor route. Already the strong performance of the National Roads Authority and its partners across the country in local authorities is evidenced by the fact that they have been able to advance a number of key projects on the Atlantic corridor to begin construction years ahead of their original schedules. Measures in today’s Bill can only add to the efficiency of Ireland’s road builders.
As I stated at the outset, the driving force behind the introduction of this legislation is the need to provide the necessary statutory basis to facilitate the implementation of free-flow open road tolling, also known as barrier-free tolling, on toll-based national road schemes through the provision of appropriate deterrents for non-payment of tolls. In particular, this legislation is necessary to support the introduction of free flow open road tolling at West Link on the M50 in mid 2008.
I would like to use the opportunity granted to me today to place on record a number of facts about how free flow tolling will operate on the M50 from next summer. This I hope will help to dispel some of the rumours and half-truths that have sprung up around the issue in recent times.
There will be tolling at only one point on the newly upgraded M50 and that is at the West Link bridge. The toll plaza that is currently there will be knocked down and replaced by two gantries, the purpose of which will be to read electronic prepaid tags on vehicles and to take a photographic record of those vehicles that do not have those tags in order to invoice the road users for the payment of the toll.
Road users will be able to pay their tolls in a variety of ways and the most common and convenient way is likely to be by prepaid electronic tag, which they will attach to the windscreen of their vehicles. As an incentive registered users will be offered a discount on the standard toll rate. Users can also post-pay after they have used the toll road and this can be done over the phone by credit or debit card, online or at retail outlets. Non-registered users who use the toll road and who do not pay within 24 hours by telephone, online or in a retail outlet will be sent a letter in the post asking them to pay the toll charge. They will have a number of days to pay the toll charge and if they fail to do so they will incur a liability to pay a default toll, which I will explain in more detail later.
This new system will be operated on behalf of the NRA by a toll operator from August 2008 and BetEire has been recently appointed to this role. All tolling revenues, after costs, will be reinvested in the national road network and toll levels will be kept at levels similar to those of today. The electronic tags that will be used on the M50 will work on all other toll roads.
The system is being designed and operated by some of the leading experts in the world and it will be up and running as fast as possible — a full 12 months ahead of a comparable project in Vancouver, Canada. Despite this, I know that we live in a world where there is an almost incessant demand to have things delivered immediately and I can appreciate this, especially when it comes to the M50. People feel, quite rightly, that they deserve a better service on the M50.
Commuters and road users will seek to have this happen sooner. They may feel that as the Government owns the bridge it is a case of just knocking down the toll gates and installing the necessary cameras. If only it were that simple. This Government, Transport 21 and I stand for the delivery of real, viable solutions to often complex and difficult problems. We have to get this right and time is needed to ensure all involved get it right.
The NRA has employed some of the foremost experts in the field to advise it on this matter. These people have constructed and operated toll bridges worldwide, from Melbourne to Paris to California to Santiago. Their considered expert opinion is that the earliest possible date we can have a successful new system up and running is August 2008. Time is needed to design and develop the necessary computerised systems and software and to construct and install the new tolling gantries and associated electronic apparatus. A further period will be needed to install and test all the systems and back office systems need to be put in place and tested rigorously. There will be trial periods to fine tune the operation before it finally goes live.
Overall, this will be done in one year less than what the Conference of European Directors of Roads’ task force on electronic fee collection recommended would be a realistic implementation timetable for such a project. Its view is that it takes a minimum of four years to put in place such a system even working at a significant speed. Interestingly, all of the major players in the world bid for this project and were incentivised to deliver in the quickest time possible. None of the other bidders gave an earlier completion date than summer 2008, which is well ahead of what is being delivered internationally. The project in Vancouver started just before us and will be completed a full 12 months after ours is up and running. This indicates the type of request we have made of the NRA and its partners to deliver on this project and the NRA is confident it can succeed. Completion of the project on time will be a world record for the delivery of such a system in such a short period. We should not forget that no other country has delivered in this kind of timeframe.
While existing legislation is adequate to facilitate the introduction of free-flow toll collection, it is essential that the enforcement provisions relating to non-payment of tolls be strengthened to provide sufficient deterrents to cater for toll violations in a free-flow open road environment.
Sections 1 and 2 set out the various definitions that are used in the Bill. Section 3 is a necessary technical amendment and provides that a toll scheme must specify the way in which tolls will be collected and charged. Section 4 establishes a charge that a motorist will incur for not paying a toll on time which is known as a default toll. The level of the charge will be set by toll bye-laws which will be drawn up by the NRA this summer following a public consultation. As colleagues know, the toll road scheme will be displayed publicly this summer, well in advance of the system going live and this will facilitate public consultation.
At this stage it is not possible to say how much the charge will be, as this requires further research and analytical work by the NRA.  However, what I can say is that the practical application of the charge is likely to be similar to the current parking fine system. Motorists will have the chance to pay the charge within a specified period of time from the date they receive the default toll notice. If they fail to pay within the allotted time the charge will increase by a multiple of the original charge. If the charge is still unpaid after a further period of time then court proceedings may be initiated for recovery of the toll and related charges as a simple contract debt.
Section 5 of the Bill gives toll operators access to the national vehicle and driver file to facilitate the collection of tolls and default tolls from users who are outside the electronic payment system. It also imposes certain responsibilities on leasing and hire companies to provide information about cars they have leased or hired out.
Section 6 updates the legislative references to local government bodies in section 13 of the Roads Act 1993 in light of the changes in local government legislation that have taken place since that Act was enacted.
Section 7 relates to the Functions of the National Roads Authority. This section amends section 19 of the Roads Act 1993 which specifies detailed functions of the National Roads Authority including preparing or arranging for the preparations of designs, maintenance programmes and schemes for traffic signs, securing the carrying out of works, allocating grants, specifying standards and carrying out or assisting research. The section replaces the existing section 19(1) of the Roads Act 1993. The majority of the provisions are the same with some amendments that will slightly extend the NRA’s powers to allow it to provide service and rest areas, which has been an issue I support, as well as enabling it to more efficiently carry out its functions. In particular the section now gives the NRA specific power to provide service and rest areas.
It is important to emphasise that no part of the Bill affects the fundamental way in which the national roads programme is to be delivered, as envisaged in the Roads Act 1993. The excellent work we are seeing and will, I strongly believe, continue to see in the national roads programme under Transport 21, is a result of the partnership ethos that has developed over many years between the NRA and local authorities.
Section 8 deals with the issue of motorway designation. A central part of the national roads programme under Transport 21 and the national development plan is the development to motorway or high quality dual carriageway standard of the five major inter-urban routes linking Dublin to Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and the Border. Excellent progress continues to be made on the development of these routes, of which more than 70% have been either completed or are in construction.
To date, the development of these routes has been largely on the basis of HQDC standard.  However, as the national road building programme has evolved, the specifications, physical design and layout features of HQDCs have developed to the point that they are now essentially the same as motorways. Nevertheless, while there is little or no physical difference between the two road types, there are major procedural and practical differences between the two. For example, the speed limits, signage and the nature of traffic and classes of vehicles permitted to use the two road types differ. Furthermore, and most significantly, there are major differences between the access and development controls that apply to the two road types. Development beside and access to motorways is far more stringently controlled than in the case of HQDCs.
To protect the substantial investment being made in the national road network and help prevent its premature obsolescence, it is proposed in the Bill to provide a ministerial power to make orders declaring certain HQDCs to be motorways. The proposed provision allows the Minister for Transport, under certain circumstances and subject to consultation, to declare an existing HQDC or a HQDC in construction or planning to be a motorway. Currently, a road can legally be a motorway only if it has gone through the planning process under a motorway scheme. This section will create a straightforward alternative statutory procedure, subject to appropriate checks and balances, for a HQDC to be declared a motorway.
The provision is time limited, in that only existing HQDCs or those in the statutory planning process on the date of passage of the Act may be declared to be motorways under the provision. This will mean the currency of this provision will probably end some time next year. In effect, this means the provision covers in the main all of the major inter-urban routes which, as I indicated, are almost three quarters complete or in construction and are due for completion under Transport 21 by 2010.
My Department will keep this provision under review in the future to ensure it reflects developments at national and European level. Before issuing a declaration under this provision the Minister must arrange for a public consultation process and he or she is also obliged to consider any observations or objections which result from that process. On the advice of the Office of the Attorney General, the proposed public consultation procedure is similar to that currently provided for motorway schemes under section 48 of the Roads Act 1993.
A well-informed and consistent approach to planning and development issues, which affords maximum support for the goal of achieving and maintaining a safe and efficient network of national roads, is essential to facilitate continued economic growth and development throughout the regions. I am conscious that there are some concerns about restrictive approaches to development along national secondary roads and non-national roads. I have, therefore, arranged for my Department, in consultation with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to examine the question of further developing the guidance material which has issued to the NRA and the local authorities, with a view to providing for improved flexibility in relation to development proposals affecting other lightly trafficked routes.
Sections 9 and 10 make a number of amendments to the Roads Act 1993 to facilitate the provision of service and rest areas on the national road network. Ireland’s national road network has been transformed almost beyond all recognition in the past decade. One of the consequences of the substantial development of long lengths of motorway and high quality dual carriageway is that there is an increasing need for facilities to cater for road users who wish to rest during their journeys and-or avail of fuel, sanitary and refreshment facilities. Mindful of this, I asked the NRA to review its policy in this area last year. The authority subsequently published its policy document on service and rest areas on the national road network in July last year.
To address the growing need for service and rest areas, the NRA intends to provide service areas offering a full range of services, including retail services, at intervals of approximately 50 to 60 km and rest areas — parking and sanitary facilities only — at intervals of approximately 25 to 30 km. These facilities will be located both on-line and at or close to existing interchanges. It is worth noting that the timely development of these areas will make a valued contribution to improving the safety of the road network. This will be true for all road users, particularly road hauliers who tend to drive for longer sustained periods than most other road users. The rest areas constructed on the network will also make it easier for them to comply with European Union rules on driving times and rest periods.
The National Roads Authority recently concluded an extensive investigation to identify the optimum locations for on-line service and rest areas. The exercise identified locations for up to 12 service areas and 11 rest areas on the major inter-urban routes, namely, the M1, M4-N4, N6, M7-N7, N8 and N9, as well as on the N6-N18 and N11 routes.
It has become clear in recent months that there has been a poor response from the private sector to the opportunities presented to cater for road users’ needs as the motorway and dual carriageway network is developed. Expressions of interest from the private sector in this regard have yet to deliver a single service area. In the light of the experience to date, these can no longer be regarded as offering the necessary assurance that road users’ needs will be addressed within a reasonable timeframe. In the circumstances, the NRA has decided to become more directly involved in securing the provision of service areas.
Unfortunately, the Roads Act 1993 does not give the NRA explicit powers to provide these rest and service areas on the existing motorway and dual carriageway networks. The provisions in this Bill address this deficiency and will greatly facilitate the NRA and road authorities in arranging for the provision of service areas on motorways and dual carriageways. The amendments I am proposing will allow the NRA to drive the planning and development of these service and rest areas. Once constructed, it is intended the facilities will be created by way of a PPP arrangement.
Section 12 introduces a number of amendments to provisions of the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. The initiatives proposed reflect issues raised with the Department by the Commission for Taxi Regulation and are aimed at building on the programmes being implemented by the commission to promote the development of quality services by all of those engaged in the operation of small public service vehicles.
In that general context, the proposal to amend section 34 of the 2003 Act provides for the introduction of a licensing control regime for dispatch operators who operate a business for taking bookings for taxis, hackneys and limousines. Dispatch operators play a key role in the delivery of services, especially to those who cannot avail of on-street services such as those available from taxi ranks. Since the passage of the 2003 Act, the commission has pursued a programme of regulatory reform that has resulted in the realisation of a significant range of changes from the previous code.
Against this background, I find no reason to continue with the general requirement for ministerial consent to future regulatory changes the commission wishes to pursue. Accordingly, section 12 proposes that the requirement for ministerial consent for the making of certain regulations or ministerial consultation, in sections 34, 38, 46 and 52 of the 2003 Act, be removed. This proposal will greatly enhance the independent status of the commission. However, all orders or regulations made by the commission under the Act will continue to be subject to the requirement to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas after they are made, in accordance with section 3 of the 2003 Act.
In addition to an amendment to facilitate the extension of the fixed charge system to offences under regulations made under section 39 of the 2003 Act, the House will also note that this section provides for the extension to hackneys and limousines of the enabling powers available to the commission in respect of taxi fares. I would stress that this initiative is an enabling provision and does not necessarily herald the adoption of fare controls for hackney and limousine operations in the near future.
The section proposes that the maximum fines for certain of the offences established under the 2003 Act should be increased. I am promoting this change for the immediate purpose of bringing the maximum fines more into line with the current maximum fines applicable to summary convictions, which have been established in legislation since the passage of the 2003 Act.
The Schedule to the Bill contains a number of miscellaneous provisions. Many of these amendments are consequential on new or changed legislation enacted after 1993. The non-consequential amendments to the Act contained in the Schedule are of a technical nature and their purpose is to make it easier for the NRA to better manage and administer the national roads programme. Many of the others are simple updates of references in the Roads Act 1993 to other legislation which has changed since that Act was passed. Given the nature of the amendments, I will not dwell on them but some are worthy of greater explanation.
Section 63 of the Roads Act 1993 allows the NRA to make toll agreements with private investors. Two amendments are being made to this section. The first ensures that toll agreements can prescribe the way in which tolls are to be collected. This will explicitly allow for tolling in a barrier-free environment. The second inserts a new subsection 1A and allows a road authority to enter into different agreements with different persons in relation to the financing, construction, maintenance and operation of toll roads.
The amendments to section 81 of the Roads Act introduce a penalty and enforcement regime which better reflects the needs of the 21st century. Penalties are strengthened and updated for various offences throughout the Roads Act. This section also reflects the fact that new offences have been created under this Bill in regard to barrier-free tolling. In general, fines have been increased from £1,000 to €5,000. I reiterate that criminal prosecution is a last resort. Every effort will be made to ensure people have the chance to comply fully with the terms of this Bill. The majority will do so without giving it a second thought. It is necessary to have the “stick” of criminal prosecution, however, to make clear that we are serious about enforcing the terms of this important road legislation.
This legislation is essential if barrier-free tolling is to be introduced in the near future. Once enacted, it will allow systems to be put in place on roads such as the M50 that will relieve congestion and improve the quality of life for all road users. The other provisions of the Bill will better allow the NRA and its partners to administer the national roads programme in order that the welcome benefits it has delivered in the past several years can continue at an even greater pace. The dividends reaped in terms of value for money and road safety will be maintained and enhanced. The substantial investment we have made and will continue to make in our national road network over the period of Transport 21 will be protected for future generations of road users.
Calls were made for me to address the issue of parking congestion experienced on public roads in the environs of sports stadia and such venues on event days. Together with some consequential and connected amendments, on Committee Stage I will bring forward a detailed amendment to the Road Traffic Act 1994 to allow local councils to deal with the matter through the making of by-laws.
The Government wishes to see a particular urgency applied to the passage of the Bill. This will allow the process of the introduction of barrier-free tolling to begin with certainty, as well as the commencement of the process for the procurement of service and rest areas on the national road network. I look forward to the co-operation of Members in facilitating the passage of the Bill and I commend it to the House.
Mr. P. Burke: I welcome the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and wish him well in bringing this important legislation through the House. While several new powers and functions are provided for in the Bill, there is no doubt the most important are those relating to barrier-free tolling. I assume barrier-free tolling on the M50 is the main consideration of the Bill and it endeavours to facilitate its introduction.
Like so much we have seen in recent months, however, this amounts to a further attempt by the Government, in its dying days, to buy the election. The voters will not be fooled by such blatant electioneering. This legislation amounts to a U-turn by the Government. It was not so long ago it denied the State’s contract with NTR would be ended and that the company would be bought out. The position is much changed today. This U-turn comes late in the day, however, for motorists who have had to suffer years of intolerable congestion, a situation that has worsened with the current upgrade works on the M50. The decision to move to barrier-free tolling comes far too late.
The Government has been in office for almost ten years and only now is it seeking to address this problem. Every dog in the street has known for years that the barriers on the M50 were a significant cause of the chronic congestion that blights the motorway each day. The Government ignored the problem for a decade, however, preferring instead to turn a blind eye and to deny that the barriers consistently caused massive tailbacks on the M50. Barrier-free tolling is better late than never, but it remains hugely disappointing that motorists will have to wait more than 18 months before the barriers finally come down.
If the Government has concluded a deal with NTR on the buy-out, why can there not be immediate relief for motorists? Why not lift the barriers immediately? The Government has consistently failed to give a credible answer to this legitimate query. Anyone who uses the M50 regularly, particularly during rush hour, will know how horrendous it can be. If the State is prepared to hand over €600 million of taxpayers’ money to a private company that has already made unimaginable returns from its involvement with the M50, motorists are entitled to relief now and should not be forced to wait for 18 months, as the Government proposes.
Mr. P. Burke: There can be no doubt the M50 tolling regime has been a disaster from start to finish. This was a poor deal for taxpayers from the outset. It is a reflection of the wider deficiencies in the body politic at the time, which ensured the needs of the public remained bottom of the list of priorities. We should not forget this poor deal was delivered by a Fianna Fáil Government.
Mr. P. Burke: Twenty years later, with this latest €600 million sweetheart deal for NTR, the same mistakes are being played out again. Once more, taxpayers must bear the brunt for Fianna Fáil ineptitude and incompetence. I could not put it better than a member of the Fianna Fáil Party, Deputy Fleming, who commented at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport in 2006 as follow, “Shame on whoever negotiated that deal”. It is indeed a shame.
Mr. P. Burke: Not only were taxpayers and motorists subjected to a poor deal under the 1987 Fianna Fáil-signed arrangement but that party’s abysmal track record of negotiating on behalf of taxpayers was evident on two other occasions. In 2001, the State entered into a further contract with NTR for the development of a second West Link bridge. The outcome of this deal is that the State has paid €1.1 billion so far in constructing the M50 while taxpayers will pay a further €1 billion for its upgrade from two to three lanes by 2010. Motorists, however, have received little benefit from this investment.
Mr. P. Burke: NTR has been the primary beneficiary of investment in the M50. As each new section was opened, it funnelled ever more vehicles through its toll bridges. Despite spending only €38 million on those toll bridges, the company has reaped a rich reward of more than €230 million. When the Comptroller and Auditor General examined this deal in 2004, he concluded, “The cost to users by way of toll revenue is around 4.8 times the whole-life costs of the toll road including the two bridges, or around €869 million more than the cost when expressed in 2004 values”. Not only was the original deal a bad one but the Government is hell bent on doing it all again.
The Government will pay €113 million to a French company to construct the new barrier-free regime and a massive €600 million to NTR to compensate it for ending the contract. Where is the compensation for motorists who have to endure unbearable congestion around the West Link toll bridge? A clause in the original contract stipulated that the bridge should not be allowed to become a source of congestion on the M50. Despite the undeniable reality that it has become a source of congestion, it appears that at no point did the Government mandate NTR to lift the toll barriers in acknowledgement that they were a major cause of traffic tailbacks.
Instead, the Government rushed headlong into this giveaway compensation package with a blank cheque book. The deal with NTR involves the taxpayer paying €1 million per week until 2020. Moreover, commuters will continue to pay a toll to use the M50. This debacle raises serious questions about the use of private sector tolls and their implications for traffic management and the protection of road users’ interests. The terms of this buy-out are a costly lesson on the dangers of relinquishing control over a vital strategic element of infrastructure to private interests.
Fine Gael has a clear position on the future of tolling. We will rule out any new private tolls on our roads and insist that the State never again loses control of a major component of infrastructure. Such proposals work against the public interest. Fine Gael will ensure that all future tolls will be operated by the State and levied solely for the benefit of Irish taxpayers and motorists to maintain and operate roads. We will also mandate that there will be only one toll on any major inter-urban route. Multi-tolling in a small country is a nonsense. The State will set toll fees and use them only to regulate traffic flows, cover maintenance costs and some capital costs. Fine Gael would move immediately to a barrier-free toll facility on the M50 and rule out any plans for multi-point tolling. Fine Gael proposes a new set of contractual relationships between the State and the private sector for new roads to better service motorists and taxpayers.
The current financing system is not delivering value for money for the State, the taxpayer or the motorist. There is no justification for using expensive private money for public roads. With a growing economy and where the Government has found itself with an unexpected additional €2 billion in tax revenues, there is less need to resort to private sector finance. While there is currently no longer a rationale for private sector tolling, Fine Gael acknowledges that if the economic climate changes and State coffers need private finance back-up, extra financing options must be considered such as investment from the pensions reserve fund or increased capital borrowing and PPPs reimbursed by annual payments instead of tolls.
The Government has proved itself incapable of managing the development of many major infrastructure projects. The list of its shortcomings and inadequacies is long after ten years in office — the port tunnel, PPARS, Punchestown, marinas, e-voting, illegal nursing home charges. Never has any Government mishandled and wasted so much of taxpayers’ hard-earned money so rapidly and blatantly. The M50 buy-out is no different and it is ordinary commuters and taxpayers who are bearing the brunt of that incompetence.
While I would like to deal with the other significant parts of the legislation, there is one further point regarding tolling I wish to raise. Last week, media reports indicated that the new barrier free tolling regime would not be able to toll vehicles registered outside the State. That is extremely worrying, given the high level of non-national vehicles on our roads. The legislation before the House appears to make provision for non-State registered cars to pay a toll. However, in a radio interview yesterday the Minister admitted that the State would be relying on motorists’ goodwill to pay the toll.
Mr. P. Burke: That is unacceptable. Currently, more than 20% of all penalty points detected are not imposed, largely because they involve cars not registered in the State. Will that situation apply to the new tolling regime? That will mean that motorists who do pay will end up paying for those who do not. We are about to invest in a new road tolling regime and a new speed camera regime at a cost of hundreds of millions of euro and the system must be capable of tracking all cars. Otherwise, it is a poor investment.
Mr. P. Burke: Regarding the payment of tolls, it has been brought to my attention that pre-paid tolls cannot be used on all toll roads and that a different payment system will be needed for, say, the M50, the N4——
Mr. P. Burke: The Bill also makes changes to the Taxi Regulation Act 2003 and appears to give powers to the regulator to make regulations covering various aspects of the taxi industry, from vehicle standards to driver behaviour. The original legislation in 2003 gave this power to the Minister for Transport. I am concerned that this power is being taken away, removing the Minister from the equation and reducing the accountability for such regulation from the Houses of the Oireachtas. I do not support that provision because the elected Members of the Oireachtas have a right to scrutinise any changes to the taxi industry and any such regulation should be signed by the Minister for Transport and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I welcome the provisions in the Bill which mandate the National Roads Authority to provide rest or service areas on our major route ways. Driver fatigue has been identified as a significant factor in road fatalities and accidents and it is critical that motorists have the opportunity to avail of such services. It is regrettable that it has taken so long for this to happen. It appears that for a considerable length of time both the Minister for Transport and the National Roads Authority opposed the provision of such facilities. These facilities will now have to be developed retrospectively and may not be in place for several years. That is another example of the short-sighted approach to infrastructural development adopted by the Government.
Section 8 provides for the upgrading of a road from dual carriageway status to motorway. The maximum speed does not apply on the N17 or the N7, which is the Naas to Dublin road, yet the Naas Road is a three-lane carriageway each way. On some parts of the N17, including——
Mr. P. Burke: ——the Ennis bypass, which the Minister opened recently, the maximum speed does not apply on any of those roads. It may not apply at dual carriageway level either. What would it take for those roads to be upgraded to ensure the maximum speed can apply on them? They are two lane carriageways and are built to a very high standard yet the maximum speed of 120 k/hr does not apply on either of them. What would have to be done at the time of construction to allow those roads to——
Mr. P. Burke: If it is technical and if this Bill allows that the speed be raised to the maximum speed, I would welcome that. I will not oppose the Bill. I welcome its provisions and hope the Minister will clarify some of the issues I raised.
The Roads Bill 2007 facilitates the introduction of barrier free tolling, redesignation of certain high quality dual carriageways to be motorways and a number of amendments to the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. I welcome the Bill as undoubtedly it will prove to be a simple and practical way to facilitate the efficient administration involved in solving the traffic bottleneck that is the West Link toll bridge on the M50.
While there is legislation to facilitate the introduction of free flow toll collection, it is necessary to strengthen the enforcement provisions relating to non-payment of tolls and to provide sufficient deterrent to cater for toll violations in a free flow open road environment. It represents a decentralising of some powers from the Minister to relevant bodies — the National Roads Authority and local authorities in the case of upkeep and construction of roads — and the Commission for Taxi Regulation. This will undoubtedly result in cutting the bureaucratic red tape and make it easier for the National Roads Authority to better manage and administer these duties in general.
As regards barrier free tolling, which is the main aim of the Bill, the utilisation of this technology is the future and it is time to embrace it. By enabling the driver to drive straight through a toll collection point without the need to stop or slow down must be welcomed. According to research undertaken by countries where similar technology is used, I understand 400 cars per hour can pass through a manned toll booth, 600 cars per hour can pass through an exact change lane and 2,200 cars per hour can pass through a barrier free tolling system.
I recently spoke to the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport who had just led a delegation from the committee to Australia. He was very impressed with this barrier-free tolling system and highly recommended it for use on our motorways. This is very welcome news for users of the M50 and will in time be welcome news for users of the other motorways. Opposition Members may jump on the bandwagon and claim it is too little too late. However, no one could have foreseen the growth that has occurred in almost every sector of the economy on this island and therefore no one could have estimated the growth in motoring numbers using the West Link and other national roads and motorways. When it opened in 1990, only 3,000 motorists used it daily; by 1996, 25,000 motorists used it; by 1997, 45,500 motorists used it each day; today more than 85,000 motorists use it on a daily basis. Now with the banning of HGVs from the city centre, the use of the port tunnel and the 35% extra HGVs using the M50 daily, the problem of congestion is becoming more intense. Therefore, the introduction of barrier-free tolling in conjunction with the upgrade of the M50 must be welcomed.
It may be of interest to Senator Paddy Burke and his colleagues that our economic growth has been a double-edged sword. Thanks to the Fianna Fáil-led Governments through the years with dynamic economic planning we are one of the richest countries in the world. We are now dealing with the consequences of this growth and considerable catch-up is required. However, we are getting there. The Minister highlighted a number of projects that have been completed and are under construction.
When Senator Paddy Burke’s party was in government along with the Labour Party until 1987, its legacy was bankruptcy and emigration. We now have a population of 4.5 million with a taxpayer base of 1.5 million. It is not that long ago under a Fine Gael-led administration that we had fewer than 1 million employed and fewer than 500,000 taxpayers. The Government is in the process of constructing a national motorway system equal to any European and international standards. We should compare our taxpayer base for the past 15 years with that in the countries used as examples by Senator Ross and others, such as Britain, France and Germany. They had the money, the population and the employment. We had not until recent times. I accept the M50 has its problems. However, what problems would we have today if it did not exist?
As the Minister pointed out in his speech, we should not forget our recent successes, such as the Luas, the port tunnel, and the various motorway projects complete and under construction. I congratulate the Minister on the excellent work throughout the country. It is not possible to travel in any direction without coming across the major ongoing work. I commend the Minister and his departmental officials on their efforts in particular on the M3 motorway which is very relevant to the part of the country from which I come. If it was not for people like Senator Ross and others aiding and abetting those who were protesting against the road, the people of Meath, Cavan and north Leitrim would now have a state-of-the-art motorway on which to travel in safety.
I acknowledge the great work on the upgrade of our rail networks. We do not yet have a rail system in Cavan. However, we will soon have a rail connection to Navan and we will continue to press the Minister and the Department to ensure we get it as far as Cavan and Donegal. I commend the Government on its Transport 21 programme. As the Minister said, €125 million will be spent each month on national roads between now and 2015. I acknowledge the work put into the M1 road to the Border. I use that road on a regular basis and it is a credit to everybody involved in the project. It is worth being positive about transport and road developments instead of always knocking them. I ask Senator Paddy Burke to clarify whether it is Fine Gael policy to rob the pension fund to pay for the country’s infrastructure. While I knew about negotiations between Fine Gael and the Labour Party, I did not know that party was writing the scripts for Fine Gael yet.
Mr. Wilson: I ask the Senator for clarification on Fine Gael’s position on tolls. He stated it was not opposed to tolls but was against private companies benefiting from the tolls. A number of Fine Gael people are claiming that if that party gets into Government the M3 will have no tolls. I would like clarification on that matter.
Mr. Wilson: I also seek clarification from Senator Paddy Burke on behalf of his party and from Senator McDowell on their policy regarding future infrastructural projects, particularly roads, if, in the unlikely event of them even coming near the present Government at the general election, they need to depend on support from the Green Party, which is opposed to all road building projects. What will they say to the people who live in places like Cavan when the Green Party tries to prevent the building of the M3?
Mr. Ross: I am glad Senators Paddy Burke and Wilson have opened the batting to make this a somewhat more contentious debate than it looked like it would be judging by the less controversial nature of the Bill. To state, as Senator Wilson did, that it is time for us all to be positive about what is happening on our motorways represents naivety in the extreme. I suggest that Senator Wilson should go to the West Link toll plaza in approximately 25 minutes and tell that to the people who are often stuck in six miles of traffic from the toll plaza back to Shankill.
Mr. Ross: I had to listen to the Minister the other day on “Morning Ireland” when asked a question on a demand management report which is being done on the M50. In characteristic ebullient style he did not answer the question. What is happening on the M50 is a piece of sleight of hand and it very cunning. It is purely and simply designed to pacify an enraged electorate. That is the reason I pointed out to Senator Wilson that it is absolutely ridiculous to tell people to be positive when they are stuck for hours at the West Link toll plaza every single day.
Mr. Cullen: What does the Senator want to do about it? The Senator is great for making speeches. He should do something about it. He is lecturing all the rest of us on a daily basis. If he wishes to quote what I said on “Morning Ireland” he should at least quote me in context.
Mr. Ross: One could never rile the Minister, he is a picture of calm and sobriety all the time. It is not a problem. The difficulty about what I had to listen to from the Minister that day was this: it is all very well coming out with fanfares and sending one’s press office with messages to the media that he was going to open the West Link toll bridge, which he did last January and again in recent weeks, but the West Link toll bridge is still closed. Every day of the week people are queueing up and are asked to be positive by Senator Wilson and the Minister. Why do they have to put up with this? I lay the reason firmly and squarely at the hands of the Government, not at the hands of NTR. It is in the power of the Minister, as at this minute, to set the toll at zero and he knows that. If he set the toll at zero today all he would have to do would be to compensate National Toll Roads which is what he intends to already. Instead of that he has decided to promise this in August 2008, in order to try to passify people before the general election. This is a gimmick.
Mr. Ross: Neither I nor the Minister know what that will be between now and 2020. At the rate at which the Government is going, with the highest inflation rate in Europe, it will much nearer to €1,000 million than to €600 million.
Mr. Cullen: It is very difficult when one is addressed in such a manner and when falsehoods are being put on record. I have to sit here and listen to these falsehoods which are constantly put on record as presented by the Senator. They are inaccurate.
Mr. Ross: I thank the Chairman. I apologise to the Minister if I angered him. It was not my intention to do so. I still need to put a couple of things on the record which he may find somewhat unpalatable. In order to ensure that does not happen again I will try to make my remarks as milk-and-watery as possible. Having listened to him on “Morning Ireland” that day I heard a question being put to him about a demand management report which has been produced. I wonder why a demand management report is being put up for the M50. I ask the Minister to restrain himself.
Mr. Ross: I shall return to that interview which the Minister gave on “Morning Ireland” which was very entertaining. I listened to it because I had been speaking beforehand. Apart from the fact that he made remarks similar to those he is making here about the contribution I had made earlier, he did not answer the question about the demand management report. The problem we have with his proposal for the M50 is not just that he is not opening it now, he can open it now by setting the toll at zero. It is no good for the Minister to shake his head. If he sets the toll at zero drivers will flow through the West Link.
Mr. Ross: I am trying very hard to address the Chair but it is somewhat difficult. I will continue to where I was before I was so politely interrupted. The problem with the demand management report is that it is set up to manage the traffic after 2008 and to make recommendations. According to the Minister — I believe him — the tolling arrangement which is proposed is going to stay, once it is barrier free tolling, at the same point as at present. The Minister promised repeatedly on “Morning Ireland”, that there will only be single point tolling. As the Minister is not interrupting, I must have got something right.
Mr. Ross: The Minister said that. This is the most ridiculous and preposterous suggestion and hypothesis that I have ever heard. It is a statement made to carry the Minister through until May or possibly June and he knows he cannot bind his predecessors by this.
Mr. Ross: It is absurd to suggest that one has a demand management report which will not and has not produced alternative tolling arrangements. That is what it is about. It is about traffic management. The alternatives in this report are as follows. First, as the Minister rightly says, single point tolling in the same place. The Minister is right. Second, that tolling is put at certain selected points on the M50 and, third, there is to be tolling of all the approach roads.
Mr. Ross: The report will come back. Perhaps Senator Mansergh could have that job if his ambitions are fulfilled. He might replace him. The report will then find its way into the hands of the Minister’s successor and, lo and behold, he or she will decide to toll the entire M50 rather than a single point. There is a certain logic in that option which this report will recommend. Does the Minister know why it will recommend this? It will recommend it because it is absurd simply to toll a single point. The people who go through that point get tolled, but people travelling from Bray to Blanchardstown do not pay anything. This is crazy and the worst of all worlds for everybody. If one goes through one point on a long stretch of road, one pays a toll, but if one uses any other stretch of the road where one does not go through that point, one does not pay a toll. This is ridiculous.
Mr. Ross: Let us be realistic about this. This is not going to happen. When barrier-free tolling is introduced, over a period of years the entire M50 will be tolled. The Minister’s pledge will come back to haunt him because it is ridiculous to say that a single point will be tolled forever. It is not going to happen. That is not what the report said.
Mr. Ross: It is not going to happen. We will have barrier-free tolling all over the M50 and people should be told this. They should not be told that a ridiculous single point polling policy is going to continue just to carry them over the May period.
Mr. Ross: I take the Minister’s point when he interrupts because I can hear some of his interruptions. He says it would have achieved nothing. I accept that there is a case to be made for those who say that the M50 is so blocked up at peak times that one will just have another block a little further up the road. It is possible. I do not know whether that is true. Certain consultants’ reports have said that, but they are reports commissioned and paid for by people with vested interests, notably, National Toll Roads.
Mr. Ross: If he travels at peak hours, he knows that there is no doubt that one can be caught there for between 20 and 30 minutes in front of the toll bridge and when one gets through, there is a clear way as far as the airport and further on.
Mr. Ross: I know. I am well and truly injured. There is an unanswerable case for opening them now and paying an additional amount, which I presume would be only approximately €75 million. If the Minister is going to spend approximately €1 billion on this, which is the kind of inflation-linked calculation he would come up with, he might as well spend an additional €75 million to open those gates now. I do not think he realises the absolute misery he has caused and continues to cause commuters.
What else is happening on that road that is very difficult to understand? If anybody travels that road by night, he or she will see that there are lanes being built on or which are closed at night and on weekends when people could very happily do the work which is carried out in many other countries and clear those roads at a much faster pace.
Mr. Ross: We are talking about one single lane on the largest traffic jam in Europe. Nobody is using the process to ensure that Saturday, Sunday, evening and night work is carried out. This could be done. Plenty of people are prepared to do this work. I rest my case.
Dr. Mansergh: I am not sure under what Standing Order injury time exists. I compliment Senator Ross on a statement worthy of Sir Boyle Roche, namely, that the Minister cannot bind his predecessors. Indeed, he cannot.
I welcome the Minister and the Bill and congratulate him on the implementation of Transport 21. We all accept that over 30 or 40 years, there have been many road and other transport plans which have not come to fruition. The difference is that this plan is happening and people are beginning to see this. The Minister is one of the most energetic Ministers with responsibility for transport we have had. Contrary to the received wisdom among commentators, I think he is one of the best Ministers in the Government and is delivering.
We hear about all the misery, such as the situation on the M50, to which I will return. What about the easing of travel taking place throughout the country, whether it is people travelling to the west on the M4 and N4, people travelling in my direction on the motorway to Portlaoise or people travelling down the east coast below Wicklow where improvements are steadily under way? Another example would be a person talking about his or her brother travelling up from Cork to meet him or her and all the bypasses that have been finished. The fact is there is a lot less misery now. I can remember many miserable nights where I spent 30 minutes going through Naas and then through Newbridge and so on, although that was a long time ago. There were bottlenecks which have been removed.
The same is true of public transport. There are more trains and there is more room on trains. Let us stop concentrating all the time on the misery and let us concentrate on what is being done. We do not need to be lectured by the Opposition parties. I obtained a copy of the 1997 election document of Fine Gael, Labour Party and Democratic Left, entitled Our Next Steps in Government — 21 Goals for the Next Century, which was one of the skinniest election platforms I can remember. It just talked about good management of traffic, which was the sole reference to transport. There is slightly more in a Fine Gael document which stated that investment would be prioritised in roads, sea ports and rail transport services.
We are always accused of breaking our promises. I have here the Fianna Fáil election manifesto for 1997, entitled People Before Politics. On the subject of national primary roads, it stated: “We will complete as soon as possible the Dublin ring road.” It has been completed, but we are now into the second round of widening it. The manifesto also stated: “Our target will be to upgrade the Dublin road to the Border to continuous motorway standard by 2005.” I acknowledge that there are still half a dozen kilometres right up to the motorway, but the road has been substantially completed and welcomed. The manifesto stated that Fianna Fáil would aim to provide a continuous motorway to Kinnegad for all routes to the west and north west and have a motorway standard road to Portlaoise completed by 2005. It stated that Fianna Fáil would complete the upgrading of the Naas dual carriageway. This is perhaps the one area where we did not fully achieve, pending the construction of a new motorway by 2005. The question is whether the Bill will enable the Naas dual carriageway to be upgraded to motorway standard. I see the Minister nodding, so, in a sense, that is the outlook. A lot of promises were fulfilled. Far from it being a waste of money, it has been an excellent investment. If there is any criticism to be made, it is that a lot more needs to be done.
I welcome the upgrading of what the Minister called HQDCs, high quality dual carriageways. I can think of a few examples. I could never understand why the Glanmire and Watergrasshill bypasses were not motorways from the outset. One would need a microscope to see the difference between a dual carriageway and a motorway. No doubt there are technicalities involved but they are beyond the ordinary motorist. It would be good to see some of the N11 dual carriageway which is, effectively, also a motorway. Why is the road beyond Kinnegad not considered a motorway? I do not think any motorist could understand this. One of our colleagues was caught speeding on the Cashel bypass and had to abjectly apologise a while back but, when the works are completed, that should be up to motorway standard.
I am astonished the editor of the business section of the Sunday Independent should be so naive to think if one got rid of the tolls all traffic would flow smoothly. One can bet one’s bottom dollar that, first, one would attract more traffic onto the M50 because there would not be a toll——
Dr. Mansergh: ——and, second, one would clog up at all sorts of other pressure points. There has been a single point of tolling since the M50 opened in or around 1990 so I do not see any lack of credibility or any reason it should not continue that way. The truth of the matter is that, ideally, one should not have tolling at all on urban motorways. It is not in place around Paris, for example, but we are where we are, and we have to proceed from there. Creating a toll-free M50 would impose an expense on the taxpayer. Why should taxpayers in general pay for the M50 to be free? A single point of tolling is still preferable to having it everywhere along the line.
I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to one point. I travelled in this morning on the Luas from south Dublin. At approximately 9.30 a.m., only two of the 600 parking spaces remained free at Sandyford. The capacity of the car park there is insufficient and to some degree this may be limiting the use of the Luas. I accept that when the line is extended, other park and ride points will be introduced which will relieve the situation. The taxi system, which is referred to in the Bill, has improved enormously.
I was very pleased to welcome the Minister to Tipperary last Monday week. He came to visit both developments in public transport by visiting Limerick Junction — he is probably the first Minister to go there for some considerable time — and he then went on to discuss the N24 improvement with the Tipperary Town Council. I understand more fully what he said that day from the reference in his speech today to the extra €400 million which he has brought forward to deal with the Atlantic corridor. I was on that western route in recent weeks travelling from Letterkenny to Tipperary. Undoubtedly, it needs investment, in addition to the western rail corridor.
People in Tipperary are very pleased the Minister held out the prospect that the road improvement could be turned into a dual carriageway bypass. I made sure the message was well disseminated. In effect, the compensation for the delay will be the upgrading in the quality of the road. Of course none of this will happen if the Green Party’s pledge to cut down on roads spending is made a precondition of Government. That party may insist upon this if it is to become part of a rainbow coalition. I would welcome any clear statements from the Fine Gael and Labour parties along the lines of what I have said, telling the Green Party firmly and clearly that is not on.
Mr. McDowell: For the record, the 1987 deal was a bad deal. Everybody in this House knows it was a bad deal. The Minister accepts it was a bad deal but it was 1987. I say that because I sometimes think colleagues do not realise how much of a turn-off it is for the electorate for politicians to spend all of their time talking about something that happened 20 years ago or even ten years ago. In so far as we can learn lessons, we can learn from 1987 and the deal that was done. We must have regard to it but let us move on and see what we have to do.
I find myself conflicted with the Bill, largely because of a point Senator Mansergh made towards the end of his contribution, namely, that it is obviously intended primarily to introduce the barrier-free toll system on the M50. I do not believe there should have been tolls on the M50 in the first place. It is the experience not just in Paris but in virtually every major capital city in Europe that one does not have tolls on ring roads. The reason is to actively looking to encourage people to use them so as to take traffic out of the city centre. We are not in that position here. I very much regret that is the case. Looking at the facts in an objective and dispassionate way, I accept it is difficult to see how we can get back into that position.
The central question with which we are faced is why we should use tolls. Two reasons come forward as to why we have to continue tolling in some form or fashion. One is demand-managment, to which Senator Ross referred earlier. The second is, as the Minister argued, to continue to pay for the compensation to NTR and for the improvements to the M50. There is a core of truth to what Senator Ross said earlier in that we are paying over lots of money to NTR over the next 12 years or so. Where he clearly missed the point — presumably deliberately — is that the taxpayer is not paying that money, it is coming from the users of the road.
Mr. McDowell: There is a political choice to be made; whether we believe it is correct to write a cheque of that magnitude to NTR for each of the next 12 years or whether we believe that should be done by virtue of the tolls paid by road users. It is not an easy choice for somebody like me who does not believe we should be tolling it in the first place. However, on balance, it appears some sort of tolling system will have to continue.
I will return to the demand-management point in a few moments because it has relevance to issues which are not specific to the M50 but what we have to do in terms of transport in the general Dublin area. I have a number of detailed questions which are important in terms of the money aspects of this matter. The Minister acknowledged a figure of €50 million against the CPI. Is that a net figure? As the Minister is well aware, the State takes VAT and licensing fees and rates are paid to two county councils at least. In effect, there is a substantial take by the State from the toll that is currently paid. Is the €50 million inclusive of that or is it the net figure we will pay over to NTR?
Mr. McDowell: I beg your pardon. The reason I mention this point is that it is important in terms of assessing the overall impact, as to whether we have to allow for corporation tax to be taken out of it or whether VAT has already been deducted from it.
Mr. McDowell: I would like to have details of that. Negotiations have not been completed but I assume those difficult issues have been dealt with. This is important in assessing the value of the deal. The contract has been awarded to BetEire Flow, a consortium linked to Sanef. I am unclear as to how this will work. A figure of €113 million has been cited, which I assume to be set up costs. Will BetEire Flow continue to be responsible for collecting tolls thereafter? What deal is the State entering with BetEire Flow in respect of responsibility for maintaining the area of land around the toll booths and the price that can be charged? We need this information to assess how good a deal the State is getting.
Mr. McDowell: The fine charged in Vancouver is 49 Canadian dollars if one defaults and does not pay within a certain period. If the fine is substantial in Ireland a considerable additional income will accrue to the tolling company in the early years. Some 90,000 cars use the toll booth, meaning 8,000-10,000 cars will default every day. If they pay a substantial fine the additional profit accruing to the company would be considerable. I assume it accrues to the company rather than the NRA.
Mr. McDowell: That is not clear in the text of the Bill, which refers to the undertaking. This could refer to the tolling company. While I do not have a problem with this in principle, we should not seek to use this as a revenue raising mechanism from hard-pressed motorists using a road that should not be tolled. The fine should be pitched at a realistic level, deterring people from skipping the toll but not as a major revenue raising exercise.
Another Senator referred to France, where Sanef has experience. E-tag tolls are an option in France but one can also choose the pay-as-you-go lane. Many people on French motorways choose the e-tag lane. Our system will be different and much more ambitious in providing only for e-tagging. We will do very well to have this set up by the middle of next year. International experience suggests this is an ambitious project and I hope the Minister is confident it can be accomplished.
Mr. McDowell: Surely we can consult with authorities there to have interoperability of databases. There are major information technology issues involved in giving the tolling company access to our database of car registration details.
Dr. Mansergh: ——the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, which met this week, is considering making penalty points applicable across the United Kingdom and Ireland and perhaps it should be allowed do the same with regard to tolls.
It would be important to gain access to the registration database in Northern Ireland if possible. This may require intergovernmental agreement. I imagine it will be difficult to grant the tolling company access to our database of car registration details and perhaps we should attempt to extend this to Northern Ireland. It will cause a degree of resentment if people believe a significant number of cars on the M50, those from Northern Ireland, can avoid the toll.
Senator Ross’s point about multi-point tolling is logically correct. As a Member of the Opposition I will not suggest tolling every approach road to the M50 but it makes no sense that Senator Wilson can go from here to Cavan without having to pay. A significant number of those who use the road do not pay and those misfortunate enough to live and work on different sides of the toll must pay. The logic of it is compelling, as is the politics. Being a politician I have no intention of taking that point any further but the Minister knows what I am saying.
One of the major problems with the M50 is that it was built as a ring road. A few years ago the Minister stated that 84% of traffic on it was local and was not using it as a ring road or a bypass. We must consider other options. Public transport must be improved and metro west is not sufficient. It will provide a transport option for those who seek to travel around the western fringes of the city and access the airport but we must complete that loop by connecting it with the Dart line, a project that is not part of Transport 21.
Like the Green Party I am not a major enthusiast for roads but, objectively, we have no choice but to build a ring road, given the urban sprawl of west Dublin. The M50 is no longer a ring road and we need one. It is counter-intuitive for me but we must accept the need for an outer ring road and plan for it because it will take at least 20 years to complete.
Planning is an essential part of the process, and not just for roads. Someone pointed out at the time that building several large shopping centres next to the M50 was a crazy decision. Those who seek to use the runways into the centres block up the M50. I hope we have learned from it but I am not sure. A large retail centre is fairly close to the M50. We cannot position such outlets in proximity to the road without impacting on the road. It will not work if the road is intended to provide quick access around the city and cars are backed onto the road. This message needs to go out to the three local authorities involved. Some of their actions in recent months suggest they have not got the message.
We must consider the port. A huge number of HGVs use the port but the capacity of the port traffic to grow seems infinite. The Minister referred to the phenomenal increase in freight. All these HGVs and freight cannot be accommodated at Dublin Port as it is. Either it is expanded seawards, existing functions are relocated elsewhere or another port is developed. The expansion of the port should happen somewhere other than in the city centre.
We should not be at this point, but a bad deal got us to it. The concept of tolling the M50 was bad in the first instance. I cannot stand over the notion of paying such a huge amount both to expand the M50 and to pay compensation to NTR. We must find a rational way of dealing with this and put it in place as quickly as possible. It should be sensitive to the needs of all motorists and not just of those who pay the toll.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: One of the pioneers in the modern aviation sector was Monsignor Horan. He always appeared to enjoy the cut and thrust of defending his vision while at the same time getting on with the work. The Minister is the same. He enjoys the cut and thrust of debate but, most importantly, he gets on with the work. In fairness, he is a straight talking Minister. There is a minimum of waffle. One knows exactly what he is talking about and can understand it, even if one is a lay person in the context of that discussion.
Generally, people welcome good news. This Bill is about good news. For a long time we talked about the difficulties on the M50. Senator Wilson outlined the statistics today. It is possible that through-flow per hour will be four or five times greater than it is at present as a result of barrier-free tolling. That is the bottom line. It is good news. Indeed, it is as a consequence of good news that we are discussing this Bill today. Our economy has been almost miraculous and the spread of wealth across a broad sector of the population means there are more cars because more people are driving to more jobs.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: That is as it should be. The cut and thrust of debates should be that way. I am old enough to span two generations in Cashel town. I remember when a bypass of Cashel was being discussed 30 years ago. There were public meetings to oppose the venture because it would affect the town’s economy. The reason was that the economy in Cashel was not strong. There was not a huge number of vehicles travelling through the town. Now, however, because the economy is strong and there are more vehicles in Cashel, the town does not require extra traffic. After all those years of debate I have not met anybody who would go back to the way things were. That can be seen in many other areas. I can recall the debate about the Naas bypass years ago. People used to ask me how the town had fared and whether it had affected business. These debates must be seen in a certain context.
I also remember the debate about closer relationships with Northern Ireland. Invariably, one of the arguments put forward against interaction with the North was that our road system was so antiquated and the road system of Northern Ireland was so advanced that there was no way a certain section of the community would want to do business with us. However, people in Northern Ireland now talk about the wonderful improvement in the road network in the Republic.
I accept that the debate is not as balanced or general as it might be, given that a certain event is due to take place in the next few months, but when one talks to ordinary people who must drive long distances every day, one will generally hear them say that the roads are wonderful at present. That is the position. We must plan for the future, and that is what we are doing. This relates not just to the barrier-free tolling of the M50 but to many other issues that must be considered. I am glad the upgrading of the dual carriageways is being considered. Maybe it could not have been considered initially or there might be an opportunity to conduct a trial of it, but it is important that this should happen.
I am especially interested in the provision of services on the road network. When one is driving in Britain one can be sure of being able to get petrol, dining facilities and so forth. There are difficulties with our network which must be examined. This is particularly important for people who might not be familiar with a route. It is all right for those who travel a road daily, but people who are not familiar with routes need to know that services will be provided.
Over the years we have discussed what part of our road network should get priority. The Minister has made himself available to any delegation that wishes to meet him to put its case. It was not always that way. Often, the local community was not consulted about the things that were done. That created a difficulty because the community no longer felt ownership of its area. Often, communities felt that other powers, which did not necessarily consider their case, were working behind the scenes. Senator Mansergh has mentioned Tipperary and undoubtedly the same could be said about virtually every region.
I greatly support consultation with local communities. I believe that greater consultation takes place now. People have access to the Minister, the National Roads Authority, NRA, and so forth, and they have an opportunity to make their case. That is a major advance on years ago when one would sit at an urban or county council meeting and listen, month after month, as the same questions arose with no answers being provided. Local knowledge and information can play an important role. To refer to the Cashel bypass again, people had an opportunity to express their views on the possible routes that could be chosen. I hope that process will continue to be part of any development that takes place in future. Ultimately, the local community will have to be happy with and accept the changes that are made.
With regard to value for money, only two or three years ago, two of the main arguments being made were that projects were being completed late and over budget. I wish somebody would talk about the good news now, with projects being completed early and on budget. That is taking place throughout the country. It has become part of local folklore. I have heard it spoken about in Clare, Cashel and other parts of the country, yet it is not being highlighted. Full marks should be given to the Minister because, when a difficulty was identified, he took it on board, listened to expert and local advice, checked the market and now he is delivering projects on budget and ahead of schedule.
I do not travel regularly on the M50 but I have often used the route. I understand the frustration that has built up over the years. When the Government initially announced the steps it would take, there was delight. It probably is necessary to do a little nit-picking and play politics but, in fairness, it is also important to take the longer view. When we make a decision, we must consider whether there will be further challenges and opportunities.
There is much talk about the NRA and passing on accountability and responsibility to other agencies. It would be foolish not to do that. After all, this body is the repository of the most up-to-date information, technical advice, accountability and so forth. It has worked exceptionally well. I cannot see how it would have worked if we did not have an agency approach to the matter. The Oireachtas is responsible for the legislation, providing the finance and a monitoring role in it. However, I cannot imagine how we could possibly succeed in doing this without passing responsibility on to someone else.
I support the Bill, which is based on good news. It is responding to a challenge which is the product of our economic progress. I wish more Ministers would interact with the House as the Minister did today. It is vitally important in the dissemination of information. It is better to base our arguments on a real and genuine premise rather than a personal approach.
Mr. Browne: As the Minister is from Waterford, the frequency of rail services for Carlow has improved. However, the quality of and overcrowding in the carriages leaves much to be desired. I welcome the proposal to construct a motorway between Dublin and Waterford which will link in Carlow. How many of the landowners affected by the proposal have had their compensation finalised? Some have explained to me they have had some problems with the process while others were happy with it.
I am against tolling. Why has a ring-fence surcharge on fuel not been introduced? Senator McDowell hit the nail on the head when he asked why it should be exempt in Dublin but not in other rural areas. If a three cent ring fence were added to the price of a litre of petrol to finance road-building programmes, it would provide a fairer system. The more mileage used, the more one should pay. Why should a pensioner, who may drive 2,000 miles a year, pay the same rate as a heavy user? Motorists are being crippled by high VRT, motor tax, half the price of a litre of petrol going to the Government in VAT and more tolling is being introduced.
Mr. Browne: Why is it on the M50 that when a car crash happens, the whole motorway comes to a standstill? It is time to have a rapid response unit to such motor crashes. While the priority should be to rescue injured people, if no one is injured, the traffic should be quickly cleared. It is frustrating to be stuck in a four-mile tailback when all that happened was a car was rear-ended. For minor accidents, they can be quickly photographed and the issue can be resolved afterwards.
Mr. J. Phelan: I agree with Senator McDowell’s argument on the M50. I would not necessarily agree with building new motorways but there is an inescapable argument for a new orbital route for Dublin city. The Taoiseach has referred to it on several occasions but no concrete plans have emerged. I would like to see it pursued as a matter of urgency. The M50 is no longer a ring-road for Dublin city and is used more for local access to suburbs. Senator Wilson referred to the volumes of traffic using the M50 on a daily basis.
The sod was turned at Mullinavat recently on the inter-urban route between Waterford and Dublin. It is a positive development and I look forward to its speedy completion. However, the traffic situation in New Ross is appalling. When I was elected to Kilkenny County Council in 1999, I was informed by the NRA and the Department that a bypass would be completed by 2006. I learned from Mr. Barry and the NRA the week before last that it is still not even at the stage of the lands being purchased for the route. It is a matter of urgency. I know of no other town that suffers as much traffic congestion as New Ross. Tailbacks of several miles exist every evening on the N25.
Mr. J. Phelan: I agree Moate’s traffic congestion is bad and I have been caught there several times. However, it is still not as bad as New Ross. I feel sorry for the town’s inhabitants who have become prisoners in their own homes. Some time an individual in the town will require an ambulance but it will not reach them because of the long delays. Before the Minister leaves office in the next several months, will he ensure the New Ross bypass is urgently progressed?
I am not convinced of the desirability of tolling bypasses. It has been proposed to charge a toll on the Waterford city bypass. Many people from south Kilkenny, commuting to the industrial estates outside of Waterford, will be caught by such a toll. It is unfortunate that they should have to pay a toll. The through traffic travelling from Rosslare to Cork should be tolled but it is not desirable for those using it to get access to their place of work.
I know the Minister’s personal commitment to the Bill. However, many questions relating to our approach to tolling and road construction have arisen. I agree with Senator Browne’s proposal for a fuel surcharge rather than tolling as a means to raising road-building funds. Several months ago the Minister opened the Fermoy bypass, one which had been sought by the local community for 20 years. Yet, because of the position of the toll bridge, 60% of the traffic that it was hoped would travel on the bypass still goes through Fermoy, Rathcormac and Watergrasshill. A bypass for Watergrasshill was provided four years ago but because of the recently introduced tolling scheme on it, traffic is avoiding it by going back through the village. It is causing much disquiet. The Minister indicated he would visit the area to see the impact of the tolling scheme. Will he do so over the next several weeks? From the village’s point of view, a bypass is not working properly.
One section relates to the provision of service and rest areas on the national road network. I welcome that. As recently as this morning I received correspondence from a constituent who has been in touch with the Minister’s office, if not with the Minister himself, as well as with the office of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche. That person, a lorry driver who travels long distances across the country, made the same point that he has made to various Departments.
Under the tachograph system, he must stop every so often to rest. It is not possible to do so on most main roads and he is not allowed to halt on the hard shoulder. To comply with one rule, he must break another. It is important that we act on the provision of service and rest areas as quickly as possible. Provision is made in the Bill, and we must encourage people to build them urgently for the sake of road safety. I wish I had more time but I welcome the provision of such areas.
I know decisions were taken long before the Minister took up his present post, but I ask that he re-examine the tolling scheme and the system of road building. We must see if there are better alternatives, as I suspect may be the case.
Ms O’Rourke: I welcome the Minister and thank him for the lovely road that now stretches as far as Tyrrellspass and will shortly go to Kilbeggan. We really want it to go to Athlone, since Moate has become the new Kinnegad, but that is beside the point.
I wish also to mention briefly the town of Rochfordbridge, whose business people have contacted me. I know that signage is relevant and they would like signs informing motorists that there is a restaurant. The Minister will be familiar with such signs which might indicate, for example, that there is a major secondary school in Rochfordbridge. Whatever the signs for services in towns, Rochfordbridge gets no mention on any. I was asked to speak on the issue and raise it with the Minister. I presume that doing so publicly is the same as doing so privately and that note will be taken.
I cannot understand truck drivers who refuse to use the massive facility that we now have running from Tyrrellspass to far beyond Enfield. We see them on the parallel road to the left as we go through with our €2.60. The wear and tear caused by those huge trucks on the roads, not to mention the drivers, who must watch out for bends, represents a very great shortcoming on the part of truck owners and the drivers themselves who do not use the new road. I met one of them one day and asked why. He shrugged and replied that it was on the boss’s orders, which is a great shame.
This Bill does not allow for county roads, being intended to cover much more important matters, but to the people it is the county roads that matter. We travel around to cumann meetings — the other parties may give them an alternative name — and find that the issue of county roads arises constantly. People believe that not enough is being spent on them and that maintenance is insufficient, so there is great dissatisfaction.
Those people take their children to school, visit the local shop, attend church or go into town, but they find themselves short of the proper road surface on which to drive. However, great work is being done, and roads are now being completed ahead of schedule and within costings, which is quite remarkable. I sat on the sub-committee dealing with public transport during the period when we heard horrendous prices quoted which were then disgracefully trebled. That everything is now happening within a tight framework is very good for roads, the Minister, his Department and the National Roads Authority, NRA, which is in charge of seeing that all those plans are brought to fruition.
Perhaps I might mention Rochfordbridge once again. If the Minister can arrange for a note of what I have said to be sent to the NRA, that will save me contacting it myself. Rochfordbridge needs signage, which is not good enough generally. When one drives to Galway via Mullingar, one does not see a sign saying “Athlone, Mullingar”. I know that the choice of words is “end destination”. That end destination is Galway, but in between comes Athlone. The end destination shown in the case of Mullingar is Westport, and it would do no harm to include an intervening major town on such signage. Other countries seem to have made a great job of signs, but ours are not as modern or as user-friendly as they should be. I will give the rest of my time to Senator Ryan.
Mr. Ryan: I had not been going to speak at all, but reconsidered. I thank God that we are to do away with the distinction between high-quality dual carriageways and motorways. I remember reading a report in which a Bord Pleanála inspector said that he could not figure out the difference. If he could not manage it, who could?
Second, when will we have national electronic tolling? I use it constantly on the Fermoy bypass, about which I will say more presently. However, I cannot use it anywhere else. The device I have on my window will not work on the M50.
Mr. Ryan: Such an initiative has been taken successfully in Dublin whose taxi-drivers have told me of the wonderful effect that it has had on the free flow of traffic. It is disgraceful that An Post, a public organisation, has a policy of not paying tolls.
I am delighted that action has been taken on service areas. Many of us have suffered considerable discomfort, to put it mildly, travelling certain stretches of motorway because there is nowhere to relieve oneself.
My only negative comment is that it is a pity that it is to take 13 years to furnish us with a proper national roads system, from 1997 until 2010. It could have been done more quickly, but I hope it will now happen.
Mr. Quinn: I will take a minute and a half, if I may. I believe that we have not got our costs right. I was recently immobilised on the M50 and looked to my left and right to see what work was going on, but no work was under way. Admittedly, that was a Saturday, but I was there again on a Sunday, again in the evening. I cannot understand why we have not got our costs right.
Mr. Quinn: I thank the Minister. It seems ridiculous to equate the cost of building the road with the cost to the economy. The cost of paying people to carry out work is only part of the cost because there is a further substantial cost in voter frustration, petrol and people sitting in traffic jams doing nothing when work is ongoing. The loss of business due to trucks repeatedly sitting idle is very great. The company I have been running for many years has a large number, and if they get stuck on the M50, there is a cost to us. However, our fleet is tiny compared with the national total.
When I travel elsewhere, I invariably see big lights rigged up at night to allow work to be carried out. I understand there might be frustration about not getting something done. In a rural area, I cannot understand why work cannot go ahead at night. I can understand that on the Rock Road in Blackrock, local people might ask for work to stop to allow them to sleep, but that does not apply to the M50.
Mr. Quinn: There is great frustration, and I would love to think that we had got our costs right instead of simply counting the money we pay the developer. I hope the Minister can give me an answer because we have not done it correctly hitherto.
Mr. J. Walsh: I commend the Minister. I have never seen such progress being made on improvements to our road infrastructure, although it was overdue. The fact that the work is on time and within cost is a credit to the Minister and the initiatives he has taken.
With regard to the M50, tolls are a satisfactory way of recouping the cost of road improvements. They should be on main arteries between our main centres of population but definitely not on bypasses such as the M50 and the Waterford bypass.
A second river crossing at New Ross is badly needed. The other day, I waited 45 minutes to get through the traffic there. People from different areas tell me that New Ross is the biggest bottleneck in the country. Anything that can be done to accelerate the second river crossing there would be welcome. Once the Waterford bypass has been completed we will have chaos there with traffic backed up to Glenmore.
The Minister will be familiar with the Fiddown-Piltown bypass, but the two plus one road system is a hazard and someone will be killed there. The two plus one concept should be abandoned in favour of a two plus two system. We should move towards dual carriageways where accidents are not taking place. That policy should be pursued and the NRA should be advised accordingly, if it is not of that mind.
Speed limits need to be reviewed across the country. The private administration of the speed limits is to be introduced but the limits in some areas have been set at artificially low levels simply as a status symbol for small rural locations. Those speed limits need to be re-examined. I am glad the Bill will provide for a system whereby dual carriageways can be upgraded to motorway standard. That is long overdue.
Mr. J. Walsh: Eight years ago, the chief executive of the NRA told the Joint Committee on Transport that the speed limit on the N11 and the Arklow bypass would be raised to 70 mph, which would now be 120 km/h. That needs to be done. In most cases, gardaí are taking the soft option of shooting fish in a barrel.
Recently, I was travelling by road in Britain and over a journey of a few hundred miles I averaged a speed of 104 km/h. In this country one would be lucky to average 60 km/h but the hidden cost of that to our economy is enormous. Drivers who travel at 40 mph are having a huge impact on that cost and constitute a major road hazard. Something will have to be done. I do not know if Ireland has a higher proportion of bad drivers compared to other countries, but in other jurisdictions people travel at the speed limit. A law needs to be introduced specifically to target people who hold up 20 or 30 vehicles behind them. I urge the Minister to examine that problem.
Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen): I thank Senators from both sides of the House for their contributions to this debate which, by and large, was rational and fair. I have no disagreement with the point made by Senator Quinn. We want to introduce a 24-hour operation on the M50 but ironically those stuck in traffic are the same people who objected through the planning process to stop us doing a 24-hour system. It was a condition of the planning process that we could not do that. The planning process imposed strict timeframes on what work we were allowed to do——
Mr. Cullen: ——on the M50. I am talking specifically about the M50 so that is a simple answer. We live in a democracy and the planning process is the voice of the people. That voice was very clear — they did not want 24-hour working and weekend restrictions on the M50, which is regrettable because it does add to real costs that are visible, as well as hidden costs all over the place, including delivery. That is where we are, however, and all these roads are subject to the planning conditions as laid down.
This brings me to Senator Ross’s point, although he has completely ignored the fact that a demand management review of the M50 was sought and set down by the planning process, not by the NRA, myself or the Government. It was a condition of planning on the M50 that they would examine the possibility of demand management in future. That was a legitimate matter. It is extremely childish, however, to present it as Senator Ross did, claiming that a week after the general election there will be tolling points all over the M50. It might sell a few stories here and there but it is disingenuous to suggest it.
I have been very clear about this. I have no doubt in my mind that demand management will ultimately be an issue on the M50. I have also stated quite clearly that we must have the entire M50 completed, along with other elements of the road network that feed into it, and the public transport facilities. If one is going to deal with those issues one must have alternate public transport facilities in place. I cannot think of any other major cities that do not have at least a skeletal framework of good public transport, including fixed rail, light rail and metro systems. That is what we are doing and there is no doubt that when we get to that point, whoever is here in ten or 15 years’ time will have to look at that issue. It will not happen in advance of that, however.
Of course, I would love to live in a country that does not need tolls but we would not have a fraction of the roads programme we have delivered without the PPP involvement. That is a fact of life. It is interesting that many delegations from all parties have made it clear to me that if they could get a PPP to advance their project, they would be delighted to do so because they would see the benefits coming immediately instead of some years later.
While it has been a question of balance, the biggest investment has unquestionably been from the Exchequer on behalf of the taxpayer. In earlier phases, we got money through the European structural funds. That is the balance that needs to be struck but of course the M50 is unique. It started out, effectively, as a major ring road to bypass Dublin but has become a commuter belt. I am happy to inform Senators that in the near future I expect to receive major draft proposals from the NRA on its study of an orbital road. The orbital is not another ring road outside the M50; it is fundamentally different and aimed at allowing major traffic volumes to avoid Dublin altogether. That is the principle of the orbital project and we all look forward to seeing that when——
Mr. Cullen: I am aware of that but this will be away from Dublin altogether. That is the point the Senator made himself as regards what we are doing. Huge challenges are posed in that respect and the only way we can deal with the internal dynamic of Dublin is by what we are doing with public transport. Ultimately, when the latter form of transport is in place one would have to push back car access.
It is interesting to see what they have done in London, although I am not talking about the congestion charge. Almost all private cars have been removed from The Strand, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. The Strand is down to one lane whereas it used to have three in either direction. It is now mainly used for public transport. It is a question of changing people’s habits in order to encourage the use of public transport in and around the city centre. Dublin will go like that. The success of the cordon in what it has done for traffic in and around the centre of Dublin gives us encouragement to make the right decisions for the future in that regard.
All the projects are on budget due to very good management all round. There is no question about that and the vast majority of them are now well ahead of schedule. That has come about because we have managed to develop the first pan-European construction industry. It does not exist anywhere else. That model has brought all the skills at all levels and mixed them with the skills that were already here. That is what has changed the dynamic, together with the contracting arrangements. We are the only country in Europe which has major players from Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Turkey and the UK. All those companies are bidding for projects here. They have Irish elements in them but they are basically pan-European construction companies, which have brought a huge skills momentum here. That, in turn, has had a positive effect on timeframes and budgets when it comes to dealing with all these issues.
I am glad of the response to upgrade high quality dual carriageways to motorways. As I said at the outset, there is no difference between the quality and physical appearance of such routes. The time has come to re-designate the main roads which will have a major positive effect on speed limits and travel times. I know that people complain of travelling at 120 km/h on one road section and then having to reduce speed on a better section of road. They find it hard to understand but it concerns designation. I welcome what Senators have said about the opportunity presented by the Bill in that regard.
Senator McDowell and others have acknowledged that best international practice on delivering barrier-free tolling is about four years. That is the best that has been achieved internationally. As I said earlier, Vancouver which started behind us, will be a full 12 months behind us before delivering it. We will do it in three years. It is a huge challenge and all the best companies in the world bid for it. They were asked if they could do it more quickly and they could not. Three years was the minimum length of time possible. I believe this project will happen and that it will be a credit to the National Roads Authority, NRA, and the companies involved.
It is not possible, as has been suggested, simply to lift the barriers on the M50 as this would create far worse chaos. We and the NRA did examine such a scenario. Senator Ross’s simplistic waving of cheques to lift barriers would compound the problem and the misery being experienced by people on the M50 as it would increase the traffic. I travel the M50 every week at peak and off-peak times and the biggest problems lie in the interchanges, especially at peak times. Simply lifting the barriers would achieve little or nothing.
The three combined elements that will change people’s lives are barrier-free tolling, a 50% increase in the capacity of the M50 and changing the interchanges to a free-flow set-up, that is, taking all the traffic lights and roundabouts out of the system. When all this is done, there will be a fully functioning M50 which complements the tunnel well and can deal with access from the Naas dual carriageway and many other elements.
I thank Senators for their compliments on Transport 21 and those passed on to me personally. I am well aware of the New Ross bypass as there are two big projects in the south east: the N24 in Senator Mansergh’s area, which I have been visited, and the New Ross bypass. People feel impatient about these projects and they must be carried out but we are moving up the list of projects. The national development plan gave us an extra €400 million this year and that will help me get projects moving quickly. I do not understand why people, especially trucking companies, will not use the network when a toll is applied, although experience shows that in a few months they will do so. The figures coming through on Fermoy are close to those expected when the projections were made, and this has been the case everywhere else.
Taxpayers are not funding the buy-out of the M50 and this is a point that is regularly misunderstood, perhaps deliberately. National Toll Roads, NTR, is receiving what it would have received in any case on the M50 and there is nothing new or additional. If I did not agree with the NRA’s proposal to remove NTR from the M50, the benefit of increasing capacity by 50%, which will cost €1 billion, would have flowed to NTR. NTR will only receive what it would have had the clock stopped today and it will not benefit from the huge investment that is to come. Those returns will come back to the NRA, effectively on behalf of the taxpayer. The same people who are now criticising me said we should remove NTR from the administration of the M50 as it received a fantastic deal and I agree with the Senators who said this.
Ireland was different in 1987 and people thought those who bid for and built it were mad since they lost a fortune in the first few years. Luckily, things came right for these people, and good luck to them, but it is now time to move on. The real reason for doing what the NRA and I resolved to do in negotiations last year has nothing to do with a forthcoming election. We aim to go ahead with barrier free tolling, remove NTR from the equation and compensate it only what it would have received anyway in a binding contract until 2020. Nobody can change the contract but NTR will not get the advantage of massively increased volumes of traffic on the M50 in coming years. In my view, this project could see a substantial potential saving for taxpayers and road users. I think I have done the right thing as it fits in to a wider agenda.
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