Dáil debates

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Topical Issue Debate

Road Toll Operators

4:40 pm

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I have received a number of complaints from constituents regarding difficulties they have had in dealing with eFlow customer services. Given that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport represents the neighbouring constituency on the north side of the Liffey, he may have received complaints as well. I would be interested in hearing his response. From the answer I received from eFlow arising from a parliamentary question, I understand there is quite a comprehensive customer service mechanism in place but at the same time, problems arise from time to time. In a particularly extreme case, a constituent of mine whose licence plate had been cloned by individuals engaged in criminal activity was charged for journeys the constituent definitely did not make. It was extremely difficult to get eFlow to deal with this issue. Eventually, it did deal with it but we had to involve the gardaí who had to prove that this was correct. Even when it was proved, eFlow was still very reluctant to resolve the issue, although it was resolved in the end.

It was incredibly difficult but I appreciate that is a rare occurrence.

However, the system is too inflexible with automated responses being generated without any reviews by staff who could exercise their common sense. That causes difficulties for motorists. What is the relationship between the NRA and eFlow in the context of oversight? I understand the implementation of individual national roads schemes, which provides for tolling, is a matter for the authority under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007. Is a service level agreement in place that contractually requires eFlow to deal with customer queries in a timely and efficient manner? Has the NRA power to require the company to do so? What is the position regarding informing customers that they have failed to pay a charge? It is my understanding that within two months, a person may face a fine of more than €150 and a court appearance without realising it. One of the key issues I would like to address is the need for eFlow to remind somebody who may have forgotten to pay a charge to do so.

For a road that is travelled by so many people on an infrequent basis, more could be done to make the public aware of the importance of paying tolls and customers who fail to do so more quickly should be contacted in order that they do not face excessive charges. Could a warning system be provided for those who forget to pay the toll? The penalties mount up quickly. If one crosses the toll in a car and does not pay the €3 charge by 8 p.m. the following day, the charge is immediately doubled and it increases by €41 if it is not paid within 14 days after that. Ideally, no one should end up in a court case like a constituent of mine recently and a warning system would ensure the deadlines are met.

What are the procedures regarding foreign-registered vehicles? I understand special numbers are in use to receive calls in this regard. What powers has eFlow to track down the owners of vehicles registered abroad?

Where do eFlow's profits go? Will charges be reduced in the future?

4:50 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address this issue. I have responsibility for overall policy and funding relating to the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the NRA under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Furthermore, the statutory power to levy tolls on national roads such as the M50, to make toll by-laws and to enter into toll agreements with private investors in respect of national roads is vested in the NRA under Part V of the Roads Act 1993, as amended by the Planning and Development Act 2000 and the Roads Act 2007.

The Roads Acts authorise the making of by-laws to deal with the operation and management of a toll road and to deal with various operational matters. By-laws for toll roads generally specify who is to be liable to pay a toll and the different levels of tolls for different types of vehicle, regulate the way in which payment is to be made, specifically require the payment of the appropriate toll before a vehicle may use the toll road and impose that obligation on the driver of the vehicle and provide that failure by a person liable to pay the toll is an offence.

Since 2008, a barrier-free tolling scheme called eFlow operates on the M50. This allows all motorists to pass through the toll at motorway speed, with their journeys and consequent liability to pay a toll being recorded by the barrier free system that has been put in place. The principal types of road users are a tag holder, whether issued by eFlow or some other tag issuer; a video account holder where a camera at the toll booth recognises the pre-registered registration number of the vehicle and charges the account by reference to the registration number of the vehicle; and an unregistered road user where he or she has until the following day at 8 p. m. to pay the toll at any Payzone outlet, online or by telephone. The tolls payable vary depending on the category of user. There is significant signage on the approach to and from the M50 toll point indicating tolls are in place. Every effort is made to ensure motorists have an opportunity to comply fully with the toll system and there are a variety of ways such as telephone, online, pre-pay and shops with Payzone logo to pay the legally due tolls. I understand that a guide for tourists using any of the Republic's 11 toll points is available on the eFlow website.

The NRA has established an enforcement policy to assist in the recovery of unpaid toll charges and fines and the prosecution of all toll evaders of Irish or foreign-registered vehicles. An effective enforcement policy is necessary for barrier free tolling to work. Sanef ITS Operations is the operator of eFlow on behalf of the NRA. It is a customer focused e-commerce business with more than 2 million customers and I understand it handles approximately 45 million transactions per year, making it one of the largest customer operations in Ireland.

Moving from a toll plaza facility to barrier-free tolling was a significant change not just for Ireland but also within Europe. The M50 motorway was the first European barrier-free toll system that catered for all vehicle types. Other European countries had only implemented barrier-free toll systems for HGVs.

Prior to the introduction of barrier-free tolling on the M50, traffic in 2007 had reached 90,000 vehicles per day, almost three times the original forecast level. Major traffic congestion was frequent, with delays of up to an hour at peak times. The free flowing system which was introduced as a result of the M50 upgrade has led to increased efficiency, faster journey times and increased capacity for motorists. The M50 is Ireland's busiest road, with more than 110,000 vehicles passing along it each day. Traffic analysis undertaken as part of the widening scheme of the past few years suggested that, by 2023, many sections would have traffic flows in excess of 200,000 vehicles per day. As such, it is important and vital that the M50 can perform its function for the foreseeable future and barrier-free tolling is a key component of that.

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Could a warning system be introduced for motorists who forget to pay the toll in order that they are contacted because that is one of the key issues I raised? I greatly appreciate the fact that it is a barrier free toll because if it was not, we would continue to experience the appalling traffic jams of the past on the M50 bridge. From that point of view, it is a great advance. However, it would be useful if a system could be in place to communicate clearly with people who have not paid, say, within a fortnight to urge them to pay as quickly as possible.

How much has eFlow raised from the tolling of the bridge? Where does the money go? I have an idea that it is going into the Government's coffers but I would appreciate it if the Minister could shed some light on that.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not know the answer to all the Deputy's questions. eFlow operates at a certain distance from the NRA, which operates at a certain distance from me and, therefore, I am not fully competent to answer all the questions. However, if the Deputy would like to put them in writing or send them via e-mail, I may be able to give him better answers.

He asked about a service level agreement. I am not sure if such an agreement is in place but there is a contract and I imagine that forms part of it.

The NRA tries to pursue foreign-registered vehicles. It is not easy but it retains a collection company and a company in London to pursue the drivers of these vehicles.

I will take the warning system issue up with the NRA, although it may be argued that people are well aware of the tolls now and they know they must pay them. I am not sure how much warning they need but I can ask the authority to consider this.

A lot of money comes into the NRA from the tolls, particularly from the M50 but also from some of the PPP projects around the country.

5:00 pm

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Does it go into capital investment?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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No. Largely, the tolls from PPP roads go to the private companies. Because the M50 bridge belongs to the State, the tolls come into the NRA's budget, however it goes to pay back the money that was used to buy the bridge. The previous Government bought the bridge back at considerable expense. It is intended that after the money has been paid back, the tolls could go into capital development.