Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 26 November 2013
Committee on Transport and Communications: Select Sub-Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
Estimates for Public Services 2013
Vote 31 - Transport, Tourism and Sport (Supplementary)
We are here to consider the Supplementary Estimate - Vote 31, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I remind members that these are Supplementary Estimates. As we are in public session, I ask that all mobile telephones be switched off. I thank the Minister for attending with his officials to assist in our consideration of the Supplementary Estimate for 2013.
Briefing material providing details of the Supplementary Estimate was circulated to members. I propose the following arrangements will apply. The Minister will address the committee, after which each of the Opposition spokespersons will have the opportunity to respond. We can then have an open discussion. An indicative timetable for the meeting has been placed before members. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Again, I remind members we are only considering the Supplementary Estimate. While members may discuss issues relevant to the individual subsets, they may not recommend increases or decreases in the Supplementary Estimate. There will be no vote on the issues.
This year, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport requires a Supplementary Estimate of €50 million from the Oireachtas. A technical adjustment of €1 million is also required to reallocate savings between subheads within the Department's Vote No. 23. In June of this year, my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, announced additional Exchequer capital investment of €150 million to be funded through some of the proceeds from the lottery licence and-or State asset disposals. This represented the first phase of the Exchequer element of the 2012 infrastructure stimulus plan. It was designed to create employment while providing much-needed economic and social infrastructure, including schools, home insulation and local authority housing.
One third of the additional €150 million was earmarked for local road maintenance and repairs. This additional €50 million was a welcome boost for the road improvement programme. It allowed road surfaces to be repaired and renewed on an extra 600 km of roadway. People will have seen some of the really good work that was done with this money over the summer and the autumn. The proposed funding is being allocated to councils for use primarily on the restoration of road pavements, by which I mean road surfaces as opposed to footpaths. It is in addition to the €350 million that was allocated for pavement works at the beginning of the year. While resources are limited, my Department is very conscious that two successive severe winters took their toll on the road network. If repair and maintenance works are not carried out according to a regular schedule, there is a risk that roads can deteriorate quite rapidly and roads can become very expensive to repair. This additional funding will help to address the shortfall in this area. I am happy to say that the 2014 budget will see a similar level of stimulus funding for regional and local roads. This is a demonstration of our commitment to addressing this issue.
With regard to the technical adjustment I mentioned earlier, the Commissioners for Irish Lights, who run this country's lighthouses and electronic aids to navigation, have adopted a number of cost saving initiatives in the recent past. These initiatives, which have led to a saving of €1 million this year, include the elimination of major floating aids and their replacement with much more cost-effective aids to navigation, technological improvements leading to greater reliability and cost-effective service provision, a move to a six year buoy refurbishment cycle, cost-effective outsourcing of lighthouse painting and some ongoing lighthouse consolidation projects. These savings will be moved to the National Roads Authority's budget to cover most of the estimated cost of the toll-free initiative for heavy goods vehicles, which I announced over the summer.
The idea arose from concerns expressed here and elsewhere about the large number of HGVs continuing to use regional and local roads in order to avoid tolls and the impact this has on the local and regional road network and its users. HGVs do much more damage to road surfaces than cars and that is particularly the case for smaller roads which are not designed for heavy goods vehicles.
In light of these concerns I asked the National Roads Authority to look at the feasibility of lifting tolls for the vehicles for a full month on one or more motorways across the country to incentivise them to use the motorway network and allow them to determine for themselves the cost benefit in terms of reduced travel times, lower fuel costs and improved safety. Based on the feedback I have received, including the estimated costs involved, I decided to go ahead with the toll-free month on a number of routes - the M1, M3, M6 and Limerick tunnel to see if HGV operators can be persuaded to use the motorways more. While recognising that there is a cost attached to this, it is considered worthwhile to have the opportunity to study traffic levels in detail and assess the impacts for HGV operators and to evaluate the time and efficiency benefits of using these motorways.
The routes were selected with the issue of regular avoidance of parts of the motorway network by heavy goods vehicles in mind together with the cost implications of a broad trial. The trial is still ongoing but there is clearly good uptake on our motorways which, I hope, will prove persuasive in the longer run. The eventual cost of the initiative is a function of the lost toll revenue based on the numbers availing of the free tolling. Anything over and above €1 million being allocated now would be found from existing resources for 2013.
I commend the Supplementary Estimate to the committee.
I welcome the Minister and his officials. In principle we do not have a problem with the Supplementary Estimate put forward. I will commence with speaking on parts with which I agree. I welcome the reallocation of €1 million to carry out the trial project to ascertain whether it would be possible to get more HGVs utilising the motorway net. That is helpful. The infrastructure has been put in place at considerable cost to the State and, unfortunately, it has not been utilised as well as one would have expected. Maybe that is understandable given the pressures on the haulage sector including competition from outside, increasing oil prices and the reduction in fees. I look forward to the outcome of the trial and if it has helped to get the shift away from the local and regional road network.
Some €50 million has already been spent. Needless to say the money was needed. Perhaps it identifies a weakness in the Department or between the Government and the Department in recognising at the beginning of the budgetary process the necessity to conduct a complete audit of the road network in conjunction with local authorities to understand more clearly the needs for the year ahead. While the temptation in Government is to indicate half-way through the year that it has found some new money, that it is assisting in the creation of jobs and tidying up the road network, politically it works but I think it signals a weakness within the Department's appropriate planning. I recognise we had a number of bad winters. During the Estimates process significant pressures on the road network should have been recognised. I do not wish to speak for Deputy McEntee but as transport spokesperson I had an opportunity to visit County Meath with Senator Thomas Byrne and a number of councillors during the year. The secondary road network there is in exceptionally poor condition. That was recognised by the local authority and the Department for some time. I would have thought a better audit could be undertaken throughout the country, using the local council engineers to provide a comprehensive framework, to determine costs. That is a political point but obviously we will support the Estimate. The money is spent. The work is largely done. I would hope the Department would engage more wholesomely with local authorities to ensure this type of Supplementary Estimate does not have to be provided on an annual basis.
I thank the Minister and his officials for the introduction. That this additional funding was made available is welcome. We make cutbacks in our budgets and then come back for more funding and make it appear as though a huge amount has been added. The reality is that there have been cutbacks in the roads budget. I would like a breakdown of the €50 million in terms of repair and renewal of road surfaces and whether it includes the repair of potholes. I know it is for local authorities to decide how they spend the money. Fair play is important in terms of how local authorities get their funding. I noticed in his statement that the Minister said that councils who have a good record of investing resources in road maintenance will get preference in terms of a top-up. That is not the message I would like to send out. I believe funding should be allocated on merit. If a local authority is not using its funding properly it should not be penalised on the basis of a reduction in funding. That would lead one to say that, perhaps, Meath County Council is not doing its job properly in terms of the repair of potholes. We have all met those people. That would mean that local authority might be penalised because it has not done a good job.
Has the Minister consulted with the European Investment Bank on the possibility of providing funding for road improvements in a similar manner to that which has been confirmed for the Luas Cross City? I recognise these are capital projects - we need more capital projects - and we are limited from a funding point of view but there may be other avenues in terms of exploring revenue. Will the Minister explain what represents technological improvements leading to greater reliability and cost-effective service provision, which has resulted in savings? Has the Minister plans to measure the benefits of the HGV toll-free month in order to determine its overall effectiveness for supporting jobs and industry? Who will get the €1 million? Is it the private toll operators and, if so, how it is calculated? Only a certain number of motorways are being targeted. How is the effectiveness of the trial to be gauged?
I welcome the additional investment made in the local and regional road network. Following the poor weather conditions many roads were left in a terrible state. People pay their motor taxation and deserve to have investment made in the road network. Will the Minister confirm if most or all of the €50 million was spent on emergency repairs, potholes and channelling on roads? Is an electronic asset management system in place for roads or is that the responsibility of each local authority? A new asset management system is being established for Irish Water and also in the case of electricity and gas networks. Our road network is an asset. In regard to maintenance, data must not recorded electronically and shared and measured. Coming from a rural constituency where there are many secondary roads I am well aware that where such roads are repaired but not the drainage, it is highly likely that they will have to be repaired the following year after the next heavy rainfall. As the water has no place to go it will lift the surface and the channels will reappear. The Department needs to adopt an overall co-ordinated role to encourage local authorities to manage the asset better rather than throw money at repairs when it should be proactively engaging in an asset management and maintenance system.
Were low cost safety schemes considered in regard to the €50 million or was it purely for repair? In many local authority areas, there are still many low cost safety schemes in the application process, for example, for dangerous bends and crossings that require investment. Is there any news of investment on that front?
Like my colleagues, I thank the Minister for the additional funding invested in our roads. Any further funding will always be welcome, but we understand there are cuts in this area, like everywhere else. The construction industry scheme, CIS, has worked in my county and that is great. At the same time, we do not like having to ask people for money for roads. This is an issue that will not go away.
With regard to the toll holiday, I am very interested to hear the results of that on the M1 and M3, because it affects Slane. As soon as the updated results of this holiday are available, will the Minister forward them to us?
I will answer the Chairman's question first. The motorways chosen were the ones where there appeared to be the most diversion. For example, there is little diversion on the M50. The Westlink bridge is in my constituency, but huge numbers of trucks do not appear to avoid it. We tried to pick the motorways truckers divert from.
That is the point. We tried to select the motorways where there appeared to be significant diversion. We also took account of what the cost would be to compensate the toll operators. The money goes to the PPP toll operators who built and own the road.
The indication so far in regard to the tolled roads is that in the Limerick tunnel, admittedly from a very low base, there has been almost an 80% increase in heavy goods vehicles using the tunnel. On the other roads, the increase has been more like 20% or 25%. We are also counting the number of vehicles passing through Slane to see the impact there, though the figures may be skewed due to some other works being carried out near the town. When we have all the figures in December or January, we will go through them to see what they mean. Other issues, such as fuel savings for HGVs will have to be taken into account also.
With regard to the extra €50 million, believe it or not, we did not know it was coming. It came as a pleasant surprise during the summer. Members will all be aware that a number of other State assets are currently for sale, so I hope for some more surprises during the year. I would not like to see any further funds just go to roads, but would like to some going towards public transport. Whatever we have to spend on roads, it is still not enough. Whether the funding comes from the Exchequer or local authorities, it is down. This is a concern, but we are doing the best we can during this difficult period to maintain roads to as good a standard as we can.
The €50 million was allocated to local authorities according to a formula based on the length of road they have and the level of use. They were given significant discretion with regard to how they spend it, but it was to be used for repair and resurfacing rather than anything else. Some special moneys were also set aside for drainage works and Deputy Coffey articulated very well the reasons that was needed. We also gave a top-up to local authorities that put their own resources into roads. I felt this was important. In law, local authorities have primary responsibility for the roads, particularly when it comes to local and regional roads. Some authorities, not always the wealthy counties, are very good at deciding they should put a fair amount of money into roads, but others decide to put it all into housing and parks and to go to the Department for funding when the roads fall apart.
Whatever they decide, we want to send a message to managers and councillors that when preparing their budgets for next year, which they will do shortly, they should not come begging to the Department for extra money for roads if, when they had the opportunity, they decided to put much less of their resources into the roads. There are huge variations between counties. Some put 35% of their discretionary resources into roads, while others put in as little as 10%. The reason we gave the top-up to those counties that invested more was to send a message to managers and councillors that we want them to take their responsibility for roads seriously, so that if they want money for roads, they should use some of their own discretionary funds to prove they think their roads are a priority, rather than just come to the Department and say they are a priority.
The European Investment Bank is currently helping to fund the works at Newlands Cross and at the N11 at Rathnew. We are also confident, although I do not want to jump the gun, that it will help to fund the M17-M18. I hope that will go to a financial close and start construction in quarter 1 of next year, but it is a PPP, which involves construction companies, banks and pension funds. These must all go to their boards and credit committees and the rest and clear the project, which can take some time. I believe it will happen in quarter 1 of next year, but if it does not happen then, that will not be due to a lack of effort on my part or that of the NRA.
When we speak of the European Investment Bank, it is important to bear in mind that it is a bank and that any moneys we get from it are a debt that must be paid back with interest. There is a certain culture in Ireland and Irish politics that hears the word European and thinks of grants. I see that in the argument about TEN-T and the western arc and all of that, as though being on a European network means we get European money. It does not. What it means is that we may get debt or may be required to upgrade our infrastructure, at huge cost to taxpayers, and perhaps get 10% from Europe. We are in a very different space when it comes to European money and we need to be aware of that.
Mention was made of the road safety improvement scheme. This scheme was funded last year and will be funded in the coming year, but no extra money has been provided for it. We managed to fund many of the schemes put forward. The scheme is a good programme and provides good value and it will continue. Deputy Coffey asked a pertinent question regarding our asset management system. We use a system called MapRoad and the expert on it is here with me, so I will hand over to him to tell the committee about it.
Mr. Dominic Mullaney:
MapRoad is a project we have been supporting through the local government management agency. Essentially, it is a pavement management system for roads. It is getting to a critical point and there should be some good results to see from it next year and thereafter. It is one of 30 shared services which are being undertaken by local authorities and will be rolled out in that way. It will cover the whole country, but will have a single portal for applications for road opening licences. The idea is that the various utilities can apply through the single portal and a back office will deal with the applications. However, each local authority will make the decision. This will help standardise the application system and will improve consistency in the process. It will also help improve records, in terms of when roads were done and when rehabilitation work needs to be undertaken. The project gives a better fix on the cost of repairs, because all the information is on a single system.
I welcome the development of this innovative project. It is not before time and will result in more efficiency and better cost management. Does the project include all national, regional and local roads or just regional and local roads, and are footpaths included?
I would like to ask that they be included, because they are very important. We are trying to encourage smarter travel. The Minister knows that and he has put considerable investment in it. I feel that many local authorities are neglecting footpaths in towns. I suppose it is down to costs again, but at least if there is a records management system of footpaths, it will encourage maintenance for further pedestrianisation and smarter travel initiatives, and I think it should be included at a later stage.