Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue. During the past 18 months I have been involved in numerous meetings with representatives from South Dublin County Council, the National Roads Authority, NRA, and other interested parties, including community groups, Dublin Bus and the Garda Traffic Corps, in respect of a serious and emerging issue, namely, the bottleneck on the N4 at the Palmerstown intersection. I have long been an advocate of free-flow traffic systems at peak times. I am sure the Minister of State is aware that in the region of 60,000 vehicles pass through the Palmerstown junction at peak times each day. This is a major junction of great significance. If there is an accident or a traffic light malfunction at this major junction if weather conditions are bad, this can give rise to widespread disruption in Palmerstown itself and in the surrounding areas such as Lucan, Kilcock, Maynooth, etc. Traffic coming from the city centre can also be adversely affected. This junction is so significant that it regularly features on AA Roadwatch reports.
An extremely serious development which has taken place at the junction recently came to my attention. This development came to light following meetings in which I was involved and requests I made. I hosted a number of meetings which were attended by two senior officials from the NRA and a senior official from South Dublin County Council. Those individuals pointed out that in the context of the free-flow arrangements which obtain on the M50, entering and exiting the motorway at Palmerstown depends on traffic light sequence at the junction to which I refer. More alarming, I have learned that the traffic management system at the junction is likely to crash soon because the relevant equipment - computer relays, ducting and cables - has reached end-of-life phase. If this issue is not resolved quite quickly, it will have a profound impact on traffic not only in the Palmerstown and Lucan areas but also throughout the city. In order to ensure that this matter does not reach crisis point - particularly in the context of its impact on the emergency services, on employment and on businesses in Palmerstown, which could suffer as a result of delays caused - the junction must be upgraded quite quickly.
I wish to read into the record a quote I came across when carrying out research recently, namely, "should these signals fail and work becomes necessary in an unplanned manner, there would be major capacity restraints which would adversely affect the flow both to and from Dublin City and would result in the possibility of traffic queuing onto the M50 as well as affecting traffic flow along Kennelsfort Road where considerable and commercial industrial development takes place". The downgrading of the N4 at the Palmerstown junction has resulted in the NRA not funding the essential equipment that is necessary. The experts state that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb. The reality is that the previous Government did not make any provision for the upgrading of the traffic management system in Palmerstown. It has been left to us to do so and we must find a solution because the likely outcome is completely unacceptable. As already stated, that outcome will have an impact not just on the immediate area but also on Dublin city and surrounding areas. I would be very grateful if the Minister of State would give this matter some consideration.
I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar. The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities own resources, supplemented by State road grants. The particular section of road to which the Deputy refers was recently downgraded from national road status, previously the N4, to regional road status, now the R148.
There have been very large reductions in roads expenditure over the past number of years and there will be further reductions in the coming years. Let us contrast the figure for 2007, when there were grants of €607 million available towards regional and local roads, with that for this year, when the level of the grants has fallen to €349 million. I am sure the House can see that in light of the current financial position, the main focus must be on the maintenance and repair of roads in which we have already invested and that this will remain the position in the coming years. The reality with regard to funding means that in all areas of activity, priorities have to be set. In this regard, it should be noted that the initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is a matter for the local authority. In July last year, the NRA invited applications in respect of consideration for funding under the specific improvement grant scheme. Local authorities were asked to ensure that their total cost of applications did not exceed their 2012 grant allocations. That would allow South Dublin County Council to apply for funding of €800,000 under this grant category. The R148 project was not among the priority projects submitted by the council within the expenditure limit allowed. South Dublin County Council may fund the project in question from its discretionary grant. It has been allocated €736,775 under this grant category for 2013. In addition, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport recently wrote to local authorities offering them more flexibility in their regional and local road grants. Councils have the opportunity to use up to 30% of their restoration improvement grants and reallocate it to their discretionary grants. In South Dublin County Council's case, this will amount to €556,641 should it wish to avail of the flexibility to which I refer. That would bring the total discretionary grant available to the council to €1,293,416.
It is appreciated that many local authorities are in a position where they are trying to implement savings. However, it is important to reiterate that the role of Exchequer grants in the context of regional and local roads is to supplement councils such as South Dublin County Council in their spending in this area. The reality is that the available funds do not match the amount of work required. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and local authorities are working closely to develop new and more efficient ways of delivering the best outputs possible with the funding available to them. Given the likely continued squeeze on Exchequer funding, this concentration on efficiency is essential in order to achieve the best outturns for the limited moneys available.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I fully understand the situation in which the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Government find themselves. If the funds had been made available or if the previous Government had invested wisely, an underpass would have been built at Palmerstown on the N4. Such an underpass would have been similar to that which was put in place on the same road at the Newcastle Road interchange and which has proven to be very successful. The Minister of State and I both served on South Dublin County Council and we are aware of the constraints under which it is operating. From the discussions in which I have been involved, I am aware that the local authority - for the reasons I have outlined - sees this matter as a priority. As stated earlier, we are sitting on a time bomb and I do not want to think about the consequences when the traffic management system at the Palmerstown junction crashes.
In light of the significance of the traffic management system to which I refer, South Dublin County Council has applied for a separate grant of €300,000. I would be very happy to obtain further information in respect of that matter and pass it on to the Department.
I hope the Government will be able to assist us because the local authority does not have the resources. The money is required to upgrade this road because of its significance to the greater Dublin area.
As Deputy Keating said, we first met when we were both members of South Dublin County Council. It is an excellent local authority but, as was acknowledged by the Deputy, it must operate within the constraints that face it, and all of us. In so far as it is regarded as a priority by South Dublin County Council - the Deputy said that was the case, and I have no doubt it is a priority - there are always competing priorities. The council will have to bring forward its application in the same way as any other council, within the parameters of the rules and opportunities that apply to Exchequer funding, as I set out in the reply. I take the point the Deputy has made, but the response clearly sets out the position.