Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Road Network: Discussion with National Roads Authority
I welcome Mr. Fred Barry, chief executive officer of the National Roads Authority, and his colleagues Mr. Pat Maher and Mr. Michael Nolan. They will outline the role of the authority with regard to maintaining good-quality surfaces, access to motorways and cross-Border roads. I draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement to the committee will be published on the committee website. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. Fred Barry:
I thank the Chairman and committee members for the invitation to appear before this committee to discuss the topics of maintaining the quality of road surfaces, access to and egress from motorways and developments in cross-Border roads such as the A5.
With regard to road surface maintenance, road pavements deteriorate as they age due to repeated traffic loading and fluctuations in temperature and moisture content. This deterioration leads to problems such as potholes, wheel track rutting, increasing roughness, cracking and loss of skid resistance. The authority undertakes condition surveys of the full national road network each year using specialised vehicles. Measurements taken include the road profile, rutting, cracking and other deterioration characteristics, as well as the skidding resistance characteristics. With rapid improvements in recent years in laser and video technology and the capacity to record and process ever-greater quantities of digital data, the authority has adopted increasingly sophisticated techniques. In particular, in 2011 and 2012 we first used new crack detection and processing technology for our motorway routes. Cracking is the principal manifestation of failure on pavements, and the ability to monitor its progression year-on-year now provides us with an improved capability to manage the major deterioration mechanism of our pavements.
In November 2011, the authority published its new standard for skid resistance management, HD 28/11. The standard sets out how the provision of appropriate levels of skid resistance for national roads will be managed and details how measurements of skid resistance are made and interpreted.
Renewal and surface treatment of pavements is a high priority for the authority as it is central to maintaining the functionality and safety of the network. Every year hundreds of renewal and treatment schemes are carried out. The renewal works associated with pavements are prioritised on the basis of the annual survey results and the skid resistance assessment, while maintenance works such as the fixing of potholes are decided locally. The volume of work carried out in any year is largely determined by the available funding.
Access to motorways is prohibited by the Roads Acts 1993 and 2007 except in specified circumstances such as for maintenance or for emergency services. If the motorway in question is part of the trans-European road network, the provisions of the EU directive on road infrastructure safety management are also relevant. This directive, transposed into Irish law by SI 472 of 2011, contains various provisions with regard to road safety and it is unlikely that access would be allowed other than in exceptional circumstances. Junctions on motorways may be approved by An Bord Pleanála as part of a motorway scheme. However, if the motorway in question is part of the trans-European road network, the proposed junction would have to have undergo assessment as prescribed by SI 472/2011 before being submitted to An Bord Pleanála. There is considerable detail concerning these provisions and related design requirements in the design manual for roads and bridges, which is accessible online at nra.ie.
A number of national roads cross into Northern Ireland, including the N1, N2, N3, N13, N14, N15 and N16. There are, of course, many non-national cross-Border roads also. The only cross-Border route on which developments are being planned now is the link between the N14 and N15 and the A5, crossing the River Foy, which lies between Lifford and Strabane. Donegal County Council, the NRA and the Northern Ireland Roads Service plan to build a new bridge at this location, which will tie into the proposed new A5. The statutory processes concerning the planned A5 are subject to a judicial review, and until that is resolved neither we nor Donegal County Council are taking further action on the crossing. However, it is our intention to have the new bridge ready to open at the same time as the section of the A5 at Strabane. There will be a need to agree Border crossing details where the new A5 meets the N2 near Aughnacloy. As that section of the A5 will not be built for some years, neither Monaghan County Council nor the NRA is actively engaged on the crossing now. The authority is not currently engaged in any other cross-Border national road scheme.
We have full attendance and people are anxious to ask questions. To be fair to everybody, I ask that members ask questions rather than make statements. If we follow this request, everybody will get to participate. We will cut off members after two minutes.
I welcome Mr. Barry and his team. Mr. Barry spoke about the NRA's capacity to monitor road surfaces. As a result of changed economic circumstances, has the NRA had to extend the periods between preventative works and, if so, what are the new periods? Does the NRA have any concerns that it might wish to share with the committee about the funding streams needed for the road network that must be managed and the associated maintenance periods?
With regard to access and egress, there are a number of junctions of the type that the design manual refers to as 90-degree access and exit points. I am familiar with one on the Tulla road on the N18 and there is one at Roscrea that I pass on a daily basis. Is there ongoing concern about those junctions and does the authority intend to consider upgrading them?
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. The north-west link has been the big issue in linking up the road network. Mr. Barry says there are no planned works. Is there any indication the project is on the priority list and that it will be pushed for? It is a vital link to the north west and is urgently needed. Mr. Barry mentioned a number of cases of monitoring services. Can he give us an example of what is turning up? The road network was built across the country and there was talk about pyrite in other areas. We had trouble in one section. Can Mr. Barry outline the problems we are having? Is there any issue of pyrite or the possibility of it or of other sub-standard surfaces?
Does Mr. Barry have an input into tolls when contracts are being signed? Does the NRA have an opinion on how it should be done? Does it agree with the tolls and where they are placed? Regarding signage north and south of the Border, where kilometres are displayed south of the Border and miles north of the Border, are we pushing for dual signs north and south? When one crosses the Border, it is very confusing. The same applies to mileage. Is there any role for the NRA to push for dual signage?
Mr. Fred Barry:
Regarding Deputy Dooley's questions, our capacity to monitor the condition of the roads has not been affected by the shortage of money. We are still doing the full surveys and getting all the data. We will be affected by the likelihood of less money to spend on maintenance and maintenance capital next year and the year after than we had spent in earlier years. It will be less than the amount we would like to spend. In our assessment of where money should go, the investment and expenditure on the basic work of maintenance, maintenance capital and rehabilitation is getting priority. The consequence is that, other than PPP schemes, we are unlikely to be starting major schemes over the next year or two. The available money will be spent on maintaining the asset we best we can.
That also applies to questions on funding streams. Funding will be heavily cut, as it has already been. It will be cut in the coming years. We understand that and we are not making a case that it should be done differently. That is a matter for the Government. The implication is that, other than PPP schemes, we do not see major or minor schemes starting in the coming year unless they are already under way.
With regard to access to roads and the standard of junctions, lower standard junctions exist where traffic levels are much lower than they might otherwise be. Such junctions work but they are not as good as better junctions. It would be nice to upgrade them to a higher standard but, given the other priorities, I cannot see it happening in the near future.
Links to the north west are a priority. Quite a few schemes have been taken to the point where they are ready to go to An Bord Pleanála or are well developed. As with other parts of the country, we will not be able to start construction until funding is available again. That is not because they are not recognised as being needed.
What is turning up in the surface surveys is the rutting and cracking problems one would expect. All pavement has a natural life and it is inevitable it will deteriorate. We do not have pyrite problems on the national roads, which is not to take away from the pyrite problems that exist elsewhere. We occasionally have some issues with sub-surface works. Repairs were undertaken on the M9, paid for entirely by the contractor whose responsibility they were, but they did not concern pyrite.
We have an input on tolling. The policy decisions on tolling, whether further tolling will take place and whether a change to tolling should be made, rests with the Government of the day. Tolls were put in place on foot of policy decisions made earlier in the 2000s. If there were to be changes to the tolls, it would be a policy decision by the Government and we would have the task of implementation, dealing with public hearings, tolling schemes and negotiating with PPP companies. We do not initiate those activities off our own bat.
On signage, we have no plans for dual signage showing kilometres and miles. While miles are displayed north of the Border, it is kilometres across most of the Continent and I am not sure people really have a difficulty-----
Mr. Fred Barry:
We do not have any plans. We have the odd sign saying people should be aware of the change and maybe we could do more if it is felt that more warnings are needed for people crossing the Border. We will see if anything further can be done.
We have an input on service area contracts and garage contracts. We set up the service contracts for service areas built on motorway networks. We monitor them and ensure performance levels are consistent with the contracts. We do not have a role in the running of service areas that are not on the motorways. We do not have any say on how most of them, which are accessed via junctions or are not on motorways, are run or managed.
The question is in the context of that. We have been pressurised and we have made representations for the prioritisation of the N16. Can Mr. Barry outline the status of the N16? When the first national needs study was published in the late 1990s, the development was pushed back to 2018 or 2020. It has bounced around over the past number of years and is of great concern to local people, local representatives and business people. From a business perspective, if the road was to be developed as a dual carriageway, it would be a direct link to Galway, Sligo and Enniskillen and into the North.
Mr. Barry referred to the fact that local maintenance is carried out. Can he indicate the tendering process on an annual basis and the renewal process? Does one company or several companies operate it and does the NRA put it out to tender? I must declare an interest because my brother-in-law operates in this area in Tullamore, County Offaly. He has recently developed a more efficient machine for the renewal and rolling out of pavements. Is Mr. Barry aware of this? How does the process work?
I thank Mr. Barry for his presentation. Is the State paying significant sums of money, annually, to some of the companies which built roads and tunnels under PPP schemes because traffic numbers did not reach the targets set out in the original contracts? Do PPP schemes represents value for money from the NRA point of view?
Regarding the motorway network, Mr. Barry touched on the issue of road fatigue and natural deterioration.
Has the NRA factored in timescales and made provision for replacing the pavement in the entire network, and could he give an overall figure for it? Will Mr. Barry outline the responsibilities of the NRA in respect of the non-national road network and how he liaises with the local authorities on those roads?
My next question refers to the A5 and the priority of the Omagh bypass. I listened to Mr. Barry outline the difficulties with funding but is there a case to be made for frontloading some of the works that could take place with very little funding, for example, archaeological work and working with the utilities in arranging ducting and servicing of the route? I note the detailed design planning has been more or less completed and I understand the CPOs are ongoing. It would be appropriate as minor amounts of money spent now could save a great deal of heartache when the funding comes through in 2015.
I believe the Newlands Cross project and the Dunkettle interchange in Cork are significant. I have concerns about the N71, the N28 and N22 in Cork, but these are local issues
I welcome the NRA representatives to the meeting. Does the NRA have contact with local authorities? Do the local authorities have autonomy to respond to the demands in their local area? How has the NRA dealt with local councils that have inherited a large network of regional roads, which is a greater drain on the budget?
If we were to experience similar bad weather to the winter of 2010, are we satisfied that we would be able to deal with it in 2012? What percentage of the budget is allocated to health and safety?
Mr. Fred Barry:
I will respond to Senator Mooney's question on the N16 in County Leitrim. I agree completely with Senator Mooney that work on the N16 has been pushed back several times. I do not have good news for the Senator today. Some members may recall the 2005 policy Transport 21, which sets out a programme for improving all of the country's national roads. The plan was to do the inter-urban motorways, the large expensive jobs, such as the Dublin Port tunnel and others and after that the NRA and local authorities would address all of the other national roads that needed to be addressed. The N16 was one such road. What has happened is that we got to the point of improving the motorway network but around that time, the funding slowed up very much and consequently work on other roads, including the N16, has slowed down. The N16 is in the same position as all of the other national roads in that we acknowledge they need improvement, but until the funding situation improves, the NRA cannot advance them further.
In the list of national road projects, where does the N16 rate, is it at the top of the list? This is not about County Leitrim, it is about trade connection from Galway to the North, through Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim, into Enniskillen and on to Belfast. This could be a major trade route. Has it dropped some places on the priority list?
Mr. Fred Barry:
There is no list. When the Government tells the NRA that money will be allocated, the NRA will then look at how best to spend that money. We do not engage in continually updating lists in the absence of funding to do the work. I cannot state that the N16 rates higher or lower than the north-west corridor or any other road around the country.
The NRA has stated that the condition of the N16 is unsatisfactory and would like to do something about it. There is no purpose in the NRA conducting an academic exercise as to what might be done with money it does not have.
Mr. Fred Barry:
On somebody's tail.
On the question of maintenance and renewal works and how they are done, some local authorities carry out maintenance and renewal works directly with their own labour force, although that is probably done less and less in recent years. Most local authorities put much of this work out to tender. Many of the smaller schemes which would use the same equipment and might be attractive to similar contractors or suppliers goes out to tender. The tenders are advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union. I am not familiar with the equipment that he has in mind, but anybody who is aware of innovative equipment or methodologies should contact us as we are always interested in hearing about them. If people get in touch with the NRA, we will give them a hearing and if we think the equipment is useful we will distribute the information to the local authorities.
Mr. Fred Barry:
If he were to get in touch with the NRA, we would have the appropriate engineers look at it.
On the question of significant payments being made to PPP companies, the answer is that significant payments are being made to PPP companies. In 2013 the payments from the NRA to PPP companies will be in the order of €93 million to €94 million. The Comptroller and Auditor General produces a report every second year on PPPs for the State and the obligations for the State. The report published by the Comptroller and Auditor General this summer contained an updated picture of our and everybody's else payment obligations over the coming years and that includes addressing the issue of the traffic payments as well. I will send the Chairman the information but it is included in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report.
Mr. Fred Barry:
I will. On the timetable for the network, modern pavement systems that are properly designed and built would typically have a life of about 20 years. For various reasons some will last a bit longer and some will last for a shorter period. Some of the older types of pavement renewal works that were done, although they were cheaper, would have lives of seven years. Again the pavement life of seven years or 20 years are general figures, the level of traffic has a good deal to do with it, in particular a severe winter can make a difference. We plan for the future and are aware of work that will need to be done over the next four years in planned maintenance. The issues I spoke of earlier in regard to funding may mean that we do not get to everything we would like to do or even that needs doing next year and the year after. As we come out of the financial crisis and funding recovers, we would expect to catch up. In terms of network deterioration, if we have a year in which we do not have enough money to do everything, it will not be too bad, but if that continues for several years, the level of deterioration increases and it costs far more to fix something if one lets it go.
In response to the question on NRA responsibilities for non-national roads, the NRA provides services to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We have no authority or decision making power in respect of non-national roads. The role that the Department had in respect of non-national roads remains, but it is using the NRA and its workforce to carry out some of the work on its behalf. The decisions as to where the grants are allocated or the extent of the grants are made by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
On the A5 and the Omagh bypass the decisions on where the money gets spent and whether to invest now and if it would be good for the future is a matter for the roads service in Northern Ireland. We do not have a say in that.
Money, if spent well at this point, could save much time later. I refer to archaeological works and work on utility services and so forth. It would be much cheaper in relative terms to complete such works in advance.
Mr. Fred Barry:
We regularly do advance work to tee up projects for the future. While I understand the Deputy's point, decisions on where the limited funds provided by the Republic are spent are for the Northern Ireland Roads Service. It is not a matter for us to direct it on this matter. The funding provided by the British Exchequer is probably much higher.
Mr. Fred Barry:
No, not at that level. While I do not have details with me, as far as I am aware, the Northern Ireland Roads Service has already set out what work it will do in the next few years.
On Newlands Cross and the Arklow-Rathnew section of the N11, as many members will be aware, the National Roads Authority set out to upgrade Newlands Cross some years ago under a design and build contract. We were about to submit a call for tenders when the first of many funding cuts was announced and we were unable to proceed with the project on that basis. We have since tendered the project as a public-private partnership. This is the only means of having the work done as the NRA does not have sufficient funds to complete the project. Public-private partnerships worked very well until a couple of years ago in the sense that it was possible to raise funding and bring the relevant projects to fruition. However, as funding for the State became more difficult, so too did funding for public-private partnerships. Many obstacles and difficulties have arisen and while I do not propose to discuss them in detail, we are in the last stages of the competition. Most of the issues that arose in respect of the European Investment Bank and the availability of funding from the National Pensions Reserve Fund to underpin some payment streams have been resolved. We are now in what is known as the financial close period on the public-private partnership. The documents are being finalised and exchanged between the PPP company and its lenders and subcontractors. This phase will probably run for another two or three months and we are highly optimistic at this stage that the contract will be signed during the first quarter of next year.
Of some relevance to this matter was the signing in the past week of a public-private partnership agreement for a schools bundle. This is relevant to our arrangements for Newlands Cross because the same PPP company and lenders are involved. In this case, however, it is the NRA rather than the Department of Education and Skills that is involved on the State side. I am confident the Newlands Cross project will also be brought to closure in the near future.
The oral hearing for the Dunkettle roundabout started today. As the matter is before An Bord Pleanála, I do not wish to say much more on the issue, other than that we hope An Bord Pleanála will see its way to approve it.
Mr. Fred Barry:
Decisions have not yet been made on that issue. The work to date has been funded out of Exchequer money.
Deputy Ann Phelan asked about contact with local councils and their autonomy in terms of being able to respond. The autonomy of local authorities in matters relating to national roads is fairly limited. In the case of improvement projects on national roads the relevant local authority will often sponsor the projects by bringing them forward. However, to advance such projects they must secure funding from the National Roads Authority, which we, in turn, receive from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Generally, projects are developed jointly between the NRA and local authorities and most are developed through the regional offices. These offices are staffed by local authority personnel, although payment for staff and so forth is made by the NRA. As I stated, the projects are jointly developed.
Local authorities have autonomy on the minor spending involved on pure maintenance. The levels of payment to the local authorities for maintenance is less than they believe to be necessary and I have some sympathy with the local authorities in that regard. While they have some discretion in this regard, they are also stretched to find enough money to cover their needs.
On the handover of roads and increasing the length of regional roads local authorities must manage on foot of the completion of new roads, the legal mechanism obtaining in this respect is fairly black and white. When a new national road that bypasses an old road is opened the latter will, by law, automatically revert to being a regional road. This is not a matter for discussion but the practice has been that at the time of handover the NRA will agree with the relevant local authority either a body of works or the allocation of a sum of money to the local authority in question to ensure the road being handed over is in good condition or the local authority has the wherewithal to bring it into good condition. Beyond that, the responsibility for the funding and management of the regional road reverts to the local authority and the NRA no longer has any responsibility in that regard, except to the extent that we do administrative work for the Department.
As to the winter, we have our fingers crossed in the hope that we will have a better winter than we had a few years ago. We have taken a number of measures since the winters of two and three years ago. During the most recent winter weather crisis, the National Roads Authority was asked to take over the purchase of salt from the local authorities. We do this centrally and have a stockpile of 150,000 tonnes of salt available for the national roads. We also, as part of a subsequent initiative, supported the Department in creating a stockpile for non-national roads. While this stockpile of 60,000 tonnes is not under our management, it was procured by the National Roads Authority and we made it available.
Mr. Pat Maher:
It is stored at various locations. Approximately 25% is stored in the local authorities' stockpiles, with the remainder stored in strategic stockpiles, typically located at the ports of Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Foynes. A significant amount is held in County Louth. This is salt we purchased from the salt mine in Northern Ireland.
On the question on the proportion of the money allocated to health and safety, almost all of the expenditure made by the National Roads Authority has a health and safety component. Each time we build or consider a new scheme, whether an upgrade to a section of national road or the removal of a bad bend, safety is always one of the key considerations. If one considers the appraisals we do of the business cases and projects, the two big items that drive benefits are time savings through lack of congestion and safety. There are safety aspects to everything we do.
Aside from the major projects, we run a programme of small local safety schemes, on which we have spent approximately €20 million per annum over the past decade or thereabouts. It would be misleading, however, if we were to say expenditure on safety is limited to €20 million because health and safety is an aspect of all of the schemes. When doing pavement works, for instance, we look at skid resistance to ensure roads are safe for users.
What level of engagement does the National Roads Authority have with the other strategic stakeholders, specifically the port companies? The deepest port in the country, Foynes, which is located in my constituency, is served by one of the worst national roads. From a strategic perspective, what level of planning is involved in the NRA's engagement with the airport and port companies? Does it have plans to be implemented in the event of an upturn in the economy? I am aware that access to funding is difficult at present.
When a proposed road project falls foul of An Bord Pleanála for one reason or another and is stalled or withdrawn from the national profile, for example, the M20 Limerick to Cork motorway, landowners are left in a virtual limbo. Some county councils will have protected certain generic routes, while others will not have introduced any such protection. Sons and daughters of landowners and local people who wish to build houses in the areas in question are being put on the never-never, as it were, because no one knows what will happen or when.
There is much uncertainty on the part of the landowners, in respect of rights concerning their land, who apply for planning permission as local authorities say that planning applications are premature based on advice from the NRA. Perhaps the NRA has something to say on that issue. How do the representatives envisage the role of the NRA in the absence of the large capital envelopes of recent years? In that context, how has the structure downsized to reflect the reduced funding? For example, does it have the same level of administration and engineering support cost overheads? I am aware the NRA prided itself in running a small operation but it has the mid-west national road design office and road design offices all over the country. How has the organisation and its associates downsized to reflect the smaller budget?
I thank Mr. Barry for his presentation. It was good to see him in Ballaghaderreen recently at the turning of the sod for access to Mayo. That is welcome. He mentioned public private partnerships. Is the Gort-Tuam motorway to Mayo on schedule for 2013? Are many lands frozen from the point of view of planning permission, as the Minister has said that planning has stopped on certain roads owing to a lack of funding? On the issue of signage, particularly on the N5, the Charleston bypass, the signage to the main village on the right hand side is to Carracastle.
Some of the signage sends people astray because it leads to townlands. That is a major issue. As regards kerbing at junctions on that same road, I presume the same applies throughout the country, although I am not an engineer, it was obvious that would cause accidents as has duly happened, and it has been moved back. An engineer was not needed to point out the danger initially. When a bypass is completed, as a public representative I find that local authorities say the NRA is responsible while the NRA says the local authority is responsible. From our point of view there is a need for a clear distinction in terms of who is responsible.
I thank Mr. Barry for his presentation and his willingness to engage in questioning outside his presentation. I have two questions on two roads and I do not mean to be parochial. Two roads were approved under the Government's recent stimulus package, one of which is the Galway city outer bypass, which is before the European Court of Justice. The information from the European Court of Justice suggests the judgment will be negative. In that regard is work being undertaken on a plan B and, if so, is it likely that plan would involve an application under the IROPC scheme where there are imperative reasons for overriding public interest? Has work been undertaken with the local authority in that regard? Deputy O'Mahony referred to the other piece of infrastructure, namely, the Gort-Tuam motorway, for which I understand funding is in place. What is the reason for the delay in commencement of that motorway as it is a vital link between Galway and Limerick cities for regional development and access to Shannon Airport from Galway?
This a well-presented but nonetheless depressing report. However, in recent years there appears to be better communication between the NRA and local authorities. I note that in respect of the smaller road safety works on the national routes there is a much faster response and improved communications between local authorities and the NRA. Sometimes a little expenditure can go a long way. I commend the NRA on that issue.
Does the NRA have a list of proposed roads on which funding has been spent or committed in respect of land purchase where the roads cannot be built owing to lack of funding? What amount has been committed to roads for which we do not have the funding? The second issue is bad sections on otherwise good roads. There is a fairly good road between Dublin and Sligo. However, a 10 km to 12 km stretch between Ballinafad and Cloonamahon is treacherous and has been the scene of a large number of fatalities. There is a good road to the west and east of that section but for some reason that 12 km section is treacherous. I acknowledge the presence of diggers on it but given the pace of work, it will take a long time to complete it.
Within the limitations in terms of EU tendering processes and regulations - my view is that every decision which results in expenditure for taxpayers should be considered in terms of a social dividend - how many people can be taken off the jobseekers' register? Would the NRA consider such an approach and how might it be carried out?
I thank Mr. Barry for his presentation. I assume the NRA has an input into the running of the service stations and, if so, will he explain the difference in fuel costs as one approaches Dublin? Should we not have a uniform cost given that there is the same supplier, same distributor and same concern?
The central reservation barriers appear to differ in type and strength from county to county. Some are of the wire rope type which are being taken out of use in other European Union countries. The United Arab Emirates retired of the order of 40 km of the wire rope-type barriers - I call them the cheese-cutter type - while they are still being erected here in some places. Perhaps they meet EU regulations but I would hate to see a 20 tonne truck or an articulated truck hitting one of them and the catastrophe that would be caused. To avoid that, the system in the US is that if a truck or car goes out of control it cannot traverse onto oncoming traffic because of the width of the dyke between both sides of motorway.
Has the NRA considered taking a wider stretch at the initial stage to make it impossible for any type of vehicle to move into oncoming traffic?
I was delighted when the NRA recently opened the port tunnel for a 10 km run. There was more traffic over one hour that morning than during the rest of the year.
In regard to the €93 million that the Government pays to public-private partnerships, what is the annual budget for the NRA and how does it derive its funding? Does it come from car tax, Europe, tolls or the Exchequer? The Celtic tiger has left a great legacy in the road network. It is something of which I am very proud when I take my American friends around the country. I assume that we try to make money from road usage to pay for building the road network. The representatives indicated that time and safety are among the most important aspects of the road building programme but if we are paying €93 million per year to public-private partners, that works out at approximately €1.7 million per week. Does that money come directly from tolls or is it further subsidised by the Government?
It is all national. I have noticed when travelling on the highway between Limerick or Cork and Dublin that an unusually high quantity of water remains on the road surface after rainfalls. Is the drainage standard of the road sufficient to cope with the abnormally heavy rainfalls of the past few years? Larger vehicles produce a significant amount of spray, thereby creating a safety hazard when overtaking in wet conditions.
What is the NRA's policy on investigations by the Road Safety Authority in the event of fatal accidents while construction is being carried out along national roads? Is it appropriate that an investigation is carried out while the construction is ongoing? What are the guidelines for signage and night time lighting during construction?
I thank the Chair for reminding me of certain matters pertaining to County Kerry. There are two gateway routes to the county from the direction of Cork, one of which is the N72 from Rathmore on the border of Cork and Kerry. There are blackspots on minor bridges between Rathmore and Killarney but otherwise I commend the NRA on the excellent work that has been done on the road. The Listowel bypass is on the road building programme. I am aware that the route has been planned but has the project been costed and what is the timeframe for it? I understand there is a delay in the Tralee-Dingle part of the route.
The NRA has gone back to the drawing board for the Tralee-Dingle route. Is there a consultative process prior to plans being submitted to An Bord Pleanála? It would be prudent to reach general agreement on a preliminary draft in order to avoid deadlock on finalised plans. I commend the NRA on the Ring of Kerry road and ask it to expedite the Macroom-Killarney and the Faranfore-Killarney projects.
Mr. Fred Barry:
Deputy O'Donovan asked about engagement with ports and airports. We engage with ports and airports, although not so much with the latter unless they are developing their own plans. Conversations are ongoing with Clare County Council regarding the national route to Shannon Airport. We have received submissions from Foynes Port and we are aware of its ambitions for the area. It is on the N69, which is a national secondary road and, like many western coastal secondary roads, is far removed from what is necessary to give proper access not only to Foynes but also the entire corridor to Tarbert and beyond. We are aware of the need for improvement but there is no real possibility of doing anything with it in the near future given the funding position. We have carried out preliminary investigations on certain routes, including the N69, and have published our comments on their condition.
On roads that fall foul of An Bord Pleanála, such as the plans for the N20, the question extends to roads that have been planned but are not going to be built for some time to come and the preservation of routes by local authorities. Routes have to be preserved in one form or another or else it will never be possible to build roads. Parts of the route corridor for the M1 were identified 30 or 40 years ago. I do not suggest it is best practice to allow corridors to sit for that length of time but if they are not identified and preserved it will never be possible to build the road when the time comes for it. Local authorities will make the ultimate decision on routes but particularly where a route has not been narrowed to a defined corridor our suggestion is that if somebody is applying to extend a house or build a farm building he or she should be allowed to proceed and if we subsequently acquire the land by CPO we will pay full value for it, including the value of the additional construction. It is our view that local developments affecting people on a day-to-day basis should be allowed to proceed and we will deal with them through the compensation process if and when it arises.
Mr. Fred Barry:
I will not say we never do so but the normal practice is that the local authority deals directly with smaller applications. On larger applications, such as for an industrial development that may have a significant impact, the local authority will consult us. We would never act unilaterally on a development along a route.
I smiled when I was asked about staff numbers because the staff requirements for the major build programme stopped in 2009 or 2010.
A large number of NRA staff and local authority staff were involved in the design and planning. The supervision on the ground is carried out by consultants rather than by the National Roads Authority. It is not that we do not have people taking care of it but the larger staff numbers have reduced since 2009. By 2011 or thereabouts, the NRA had largely disbanded the major project improvement teams. One of our teams dealt solely with public-private partnership projects and has been disbanded entirely. The team dealing with major projects has been greatly reduced. We have incurred new responsibilities relating to the management of the new network. Many of our staff now deal with a series of EU directives on tunnel safety, road infrastructure safety, electronic tolling and so on. However, the number of staff engaged in the project and regional offices has been cut by 50%. The total of head office staff has dropped by approximately 25% in the same period. At the moment our biggest problem is that we have insufficient staff and we are highly reliant on outside consultants to carry out our obligations.
Mr. Fred Barry:
Some of these positions may be required for a year or two at the most. The thinking is that in the longer run it is cheaper to do it that way. We are strong proponents of outsourcing work and using private sector contractors rather than having large in-house teams. However, we need to strike a balance in order not to have a project completely out of our control. I can state categorically that we have greatly reduced our staff numbers - as have local authorities - to reflect the changed situation.
Deputy O'Mahony asked about the schedule for the Gort to Tuam project. It had reached a very advanced tendering stage. We have lined up a preferred tenderer who would like to build the scheme. However, there is a funding problem. The scheme was put on hold some time ago because the money was not available to fund the State's side of the obligations. Last summer the Government's growth initiative announced that the Gort to Tuam project would be one of the projects to be funded. However, the funding is not yet in place. We understand that the funding is to come from the sale of State assets, although from our narrow perspective the source of the funding is immaterial. Once the funding is committed to a project, we are good to go, so to speak. Assuming the funding becomes available some time during next year, we expect to be able to commence construction within six months of the funding being in place. The funding commitment must be committed over many years because the PPP payments run for many years.
The Deputy also asked about lands frozen. I hope I covered that matter in the response to Deputy O'Donovan. On the question of road signage, it is not our intention to send people astray. We will examine that specific instance. Other Deputies make representations to the NRA on signage. These are always examined. We are certainly not infallible and if possible we will improve on existing signage.
On the point raised about kerbing on the Charlestown bypass, I am not aware of that problem so I am unable to respond to the Deputy as to the reason it was not dealt with immediately. A question was asked about the responsibilities of the NRA and the local authorities. This is a confusing issue which can be unclear at times. We believe we know our responsibilities. The local authorities which engage with us are aware of their responsibilities but not everyone in a local authority may understand the relationship. The NRA has certain responsibilities under the Roads Act but more responsibilities are devolved to local authorities. However, the Act does not cover every aspect of roads. Other authorities and powers derive from traffic regulations and other legislation and these give certain powers to local authorities. The local authorities are the roads authorities; the NRA has other responsibilities. I will not go into the details of the legislation because the NRA did not write it. I acknowledge it is confusing.
Deputy Walsh asked about the Galway city outer bypass and the European Court of Justice judgment. The planning application was submitted five years' ago. It is disappointing that it has taken so long to come to a resolution. We are expecting a decision from the European Court of Justice early in the new year. The oral hearing has been held. The Advocate-General will give his recommendation to the Court later this month.
At this stage we will not do much work on plan B. We have had conversations with Galway and with the Minister. We know what is involved if the Europa route is chosen. However, we will not begin anything until the decision is announced in the next few months. The delay in the Gort to Tuam route is because we are awaiting confirmation of funding.
I thank Deputy Colreavy for his kind words. The NRA is very aware that major investment in very large schemes some years' ago has meant that work was not carried out on some of the minor roads to any great degree. As the funding became tighter, the NRA, in partnership with the local authorities, set out to identify the 50 worst bends in the country to see if these could be fixed. Once these 50 are corrected, we hope to deal with the next 50 and so on. We intend to continue to make the local improvements which are so very necessary.
A question was asked about expenditure committed to road projects which cannot now proceed. I will describe the sequence of events for all road projects - including those already built and those to be built in the future. The NRA submits the planned project to An Bord Pleanála for approval. Once approval is granted the NRA or the local authority concerned must exercise the notice to treat which is the notice of the right to compulsory acquisition of the land within a limited period of that decision. We will very often acquire the land well in advance of the building of the road. If the NRA does not acquire the land, the power to do so lapses. In some cases, the NRA has land for years before the road is built and in other cases we acquire the land and begin to build the road immediately, depending on the funding situation. In the scheme of how roads are developed, I do not see any way that the NRA can avoid acquiring land well in advance of construction.
The NRA does not have large land banks around the country to allow for schemes which have no prospect of being built. Land has been acquired for schemes such as the New Ross bypass and the Enniscorthy bypass where progress stopped some time ago because of the funding situation. However, we will be returning to those schemes. Funding for those schemes may be available under the growth initiative. I do not foresee the NRA holding land where there is no longer any prospect of construction of a scheme.
I agree with the Deputy that there are gaps in route. There have been gaps in many of the long routes such as the road from Dublin to Cork, Limerick or Sligo. Sections of the road may be finished ahead of others. The difference in the case of the N4 is that there was a continuous flow of funding for the construction of the interurban routes to Cork, Waterford and Galway but we do not have a continuous flow of funding for the N4. The construction of the N4 would have followed the same pattern as the other routes if the funding situation had continued as it was. We would have built sections in sequence. I acknowledge the road needs fixing and some local improvements are currently underway at the very worst spots. These improvements are badly needed. I know this is not the ultimate answer but these improvements are designed to tide us over until such time as we have the money to do the full job.
Will Mr. Barry indicate whether the land for the 12 km length of very bad road has been purchased to facilitate the new build? I do not expect Mr. Barry to have this information to hand now but I ask him to revert to me.
Mr. Fred Barry:
I can inform the Deputy that the land has not been purchased. The land cannot be purchased until the road has been granted permission by An Bord Pleanála and this has not happened as yet.
On the tendering processes and work for unemployed people, the EU tendering processes and the national tendering processes are very limiting in what can be done. Along with other EU countries, we are not permitted to limit tendering to local companies or to limit employment solely to local people. Those are the operating rules.
We are already regularly challenged on our procurement procedures. If we were to proceed on those grounds, we would be stopped in our tracks very quickly on the basis that we were acting outside our authority.
I understand the case is put forward that the awarding of contracts must be open to anyone who wishes to tender. However, there is a social dividend clause which states that a certain percentage of the workforce must come from the ranks of those who are unemployed locally.
Mr. Fred Barry:
I will not say that this could not happen, particularly as I do not know enough to make such a statement. However, State agencies all use the standard contracts laid down by the Department of Finance. If it were allowable to include such a measure - I am not saying it is not allowable because I do not know - then the Department of Finance would put it into standard contracts. We, the OPW and other spending bodies would then use it. I would have no problem with it in principle.
Senator Brennan referred to service areas and differences in the price of fuel. Service stations are limited in what they can charge for fuel and those limits are tied to the prevailing prices in particular areas. There are limits on the amounts that can be charged but service stations in a particular place may, for reasons of competition, charge more or less. My experience has been that the prices in services areas are generally quite competitive with those available elsewhere.
Mr. Fred Barry:
On central reservations and wider barriers, the Senator is absolutely correct. One could increase the safety of the barrier by having much wider roads with much wider central reservations. There are two obstacles to acquiring the relevant land. First, An Bord Pleanála would be obliged to allow us to compulsorily purchase a much wider corridor of land than is currently the case.
Mr. Fred Barry:
Deputy Tom Fleming will be able to inform the Senator of the issues that have arisen in respect of a road project we are trying to progress in Kerry, where the purchase of much less land is giving rise to great difficulty. That would be an issue with An Bord Pleanála.
There is also a cost issue. The price of land had become so expensive - this is not the case anymore - that it was accounting for almost 25% of the cost of developing new motorways, which was extraordinary. The cost of this land is also a factor. It is not that the money might not be well spent. If one had an endless supply of money, one could ask whether it would be better to spend more money on acquiring sufficient land to accommodate a wider central reservation or whether it should be used to carry out works - which might give rise to greater benefits - in other places.
On wire rope tags and barrier standards generally, the performance standards we lay down are based on the European standards which apply. Under design-build contracts, contractors can put in place steel, concrete or whatever type of barrier they desire provided it meets the required standards. Wire barriers are still in use on two-plus-two roads, which are not motorway standard routes. These are lower-speed central barriers. I accept that barriers of this type are referred to as "cheese cutters" but there are no instances we can find, from anywhere in the world, of their actually operating as cheese cutters. These barriers are not generally used on roads with speed limits of 120 km/h. They are, however, used on roads on which the speed limit is 100 km/h. Our problems with them are, perhaps, different to others. We are concerned that the maintenance costs relating to these barriers are higher than those relating to other barriers. We and others may be using these barriers less in the future. However, those steel barriers are quite strong and they do perform their function of separating the traffic.
Mr. Fred Barry:
I am not disagreeing with the Senator. However, we cannot built roads and barriers to contain those who drive in a mad way. It just cannot be done.
Senator Eamonn Coghlan referred to the €93 million relating to PPPs. To date, PPP companies have invested a little over €2.1 billion in the road system. This is being repaid to them. As the Senator will be aware, nothing is free. They obtain some of this money through the tolls they are allowed to impose - although not all of the PPP roads are tolled - and they also receive fixed payments from ourselves. These are either fixed subject to inflation or in some cases we are sharing the risk on traffic.
Mr. Fred Barry:
Our annual budgets vary. We were in receipt of approximately €2 billion per year under the various headings. Last year, the overall amount was in the region of €800 million. That money largely comes from the Exchequer. We obtain approximately €100 million gross through tolls and VAT, rates and so on have to be paid out of that. The net figure we receive from tolls is in the region of €60 million. Most of our funding comes from the Exchequer and it is out of this that we pay money to the PPP companies.
Standing water is probably more noticeable on the new motorways than it is on older roads. More than anything, the speed at which a vehicle is travelling is what gives rise to the level of spray. While there are speed restrictions in place on our better roads in respect of heavy goods vehicles, I am not sure that all such vehicles adhere to those limits. I am quite sure that if they did adhere to them, there would perhaps be significantly less spray. That is the main, but not the only, issue in respect of spray. I accept that there may also be other factors involved.
Traffic accidents must be investigated by the Garda. I would certainly not suggest that responsibility in this regard be moved to our or any other organisation. There are guidelines in respect of signage, lighting and preventative measures relating to road works. These are issued by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and we and local authorities had a big input into them. Essentially, they are the agreed standards that apply in respect of all of those areas.
On the N72 and the other roads to which the Senator referred, I reiterate the response I gave to Deputy Colreavy. We are doing work and we accept that there is more to be done. We will continue to do both the larger schemes and, where possible, the smaller ones. The Listowel bypass project is still working its way through the planning process and that will go on for the next year. I do not know what will be the cost of the project - that information will only emerge at the end - but it will probably be of the order of €40 million rather than €100 million or €200 million.
We are not allowed to consult An Bord Pleanála on national roads before we submit a planning application. Under the strategic infrastructure legislation, a particular arrangement was introduced in respect of other bodies but this does not apply to ourselves or local authorities in respect of national roads. Such consultation would be welcome and might have helped in the past in respect of the projects at Adare and Slane. It could also be of assistance with the current project in Kerry. On the roads in the Ring of Kerry and elsewhere, I note the comments that were made. We will do what we can in respect of these roads when possible.
I sincerely thank Mr. Barry and his officials for attending. I accept that we strayed into many areas which are perhaps beyond his remit and I thank him for answering the questions posed and for being so forthcoming. Mr. Barry covered a large number of issues. We look forward to future engagements with him.