Tuesday, 23 January 2018
Topical Issue Debate
Roads Maintenance Funding
I welcome the opportunity to raise this important matter. I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, for coming to the House to address the issue. Like many colleagues, over the Christmas recess I had the opportunity to traverse County Offaly more thoroughly than I would while the Dáil is in session. Many of the important routes in the county are in a state of disrepair following harsh winter weather conditions and persistent heavy rainfall, coupled with the unique circumstances that pertain in Offaly and parts of north Tipperary as a result of the extent to which our road network crosses boglands. The water table has been very high all winter, which is putting huge pressure on the road network. Subsidence and large potholes are developing on our regional roads, which makes driving conditions very dangerous for motorists, who expect regional roads with speed limits of 80 km/h to have consistently good surfaces. In recent weeks, I have been inundated by constituents contacting me to express concern and frustration with the condition of the roads.
Now that the economy has recovered and we are all working in a determined manner to attract enterprise and increased tourism activity to the county, the road network urgently requires additional investment that recognises the very specific nature of the network, which is built on peat foundations. I am very concerned by the situation. Engineers accept that road surfaces built on peat foundations require significantly more investment to ensure standards are maintained. The surface of such a road will last for approximately five years in normal conditions compared to an expected lifespan of 20 years for roads built on proper foundations. The Minister will recall a presentation in Edenderry at which the local engineer highlighted that issue to him. It is apparent following the recent persistent rainfall that structural problems are developing on the regional, local and tertiary road network, which means that local authorities in Offaly, Tipperary County Council and Laois require additional funding from the Minister’s Department to help mitigate the problem before it gets worse.
I wish to highlight the routes by which I am most concerned. The R357 from Blueball to Shannonbridge is a very important, busy regional route, many stretches which have been undermined over the winter months. Many other road arteries are causing a driving hazard for drivers who may not be familiar with them. For example, in north Tipperary the very important R438 Borrisokane to Athlone regional route is flooded. The last time that road was so heavily flooded, people were able to jet ski on it because it was like a huge pond. I do not advocate such behaviour but it illustrates how much water was on the road.
Locally there are engineering solutions and I am aware that the local authority has suggestions and ideas but the funding is what is at stake.
I drove the R436 recently when I did my clinics from Tullamore, back through Ferbane and on to Moystown Cross via Belmont. That road is in dreadful condition for a regional route. The road is actually subsiding at the edges and in the middle, not to mention the amount of potholes, and it is really dreadful to see the damage there.
I also spoke of the additional work that is required on the N62 and the N52. I will not go back into that again because I know the Minister is well aware of this. There needs to be recognition that rural dwellers pay their motor taxes, their property taxes, their VRT and so on. They depend on the road network to go about their daily lives. I am very concerned about the deteriorating condition of the regional, county and tertiary road network.
I thank Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for raising this very important issue, which has become even more acute since I visited the Deputy's area in Offaly a few months ago. The case was made very eloquently by the Deputy and by others for the difficulties experienced when roads have been built on peat foundations, and the effect that lack of investment has on these roads. I am particularly taken by the statistic given by the Deputy - and which was given to me on that visit - that a repair that might be expected to last for 20 years in the normal case might only last five years in some of the roads mentioned. The case made by the Deputy today should certainly be considered in the future when road grants are being handed out.
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 selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is, therefore, a matter for the local authority.
Ireland has just less than 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. The Deputy will be aware that because of the national financial position, there were very large reductions in the Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure after the financial crisis. For this reason the focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal rather than new improvement projects in recent years. I envisage that this emphasis on maintaining assets, together with safety measures, will continue into the next capital plan period.
Account has been taken of conditions referred to by Deputy Corcoran Kennedy as encountered in Offaly. This will be reflected in terms of the grant programmes that will be announced by me in the near future. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has allocated €153,962 towards Offaly’s winter maintenance scheme. In this context, it is important to reiterate that the purpose of Exchequer funding is to supplement the own resources spending of local authorities and I have emphasised to local authorities the importance of prioritising expenditure on roads when allocating own resources, including revenue from local property tax receipts.
Local authorities are aware that it is a matter for each council to determine its priorities and to allocate funding accordingly. Given the funding constraints, my objective has to be to allocate funding to local authorities on as equitable basis as possible. The main grant categories are, therefore, based on road lengths in each local authority’s area of responsibility. The division of Department grant moneys under the restoration improvement, restoration maintenance and discretionary grant programmes between different local authority districts is decided at local level. Before the financial crisis, local authorities could apply on a regular basis for specific grants for schemes costing less than €5 million and for strategic improvement grants for schemes costing more than €5 million with a view to strengthening, widening or realigning regional and local roads. The extent of the cutbacks in grant funding during the crisis meant these grant schemes had to be curtailed from 2013 because expenditure on maintenance and renewal was falling well short of what was required to adequately maintain the regional and local road network. It is a matter for Offaly County Council as part of its budget and road programme planning process to assess the condition of its road network and what works might be needed taking into account its overall priorities.
When I am making any allocations in the near future, I will bear in mind Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's comments today.
I thank the Minister for the answer and for acknowledging that consideration will be taken of the special condition roads in that area. I will certainly appreciate that. The Minister made reference to schemes being curtailed since 2013. We can really see the effect of this curtailment five years later with some roads becoming narrower. I also believe that climate change has an impact on it and I have no doubt that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport will examine the impacts on our roads from the monsoon-like rainfall Ireland is having. The R400, which we spoke about when the Minister was in Edenderry, is a connecting route from Rhode to Portarlington. It is a very important strategic route that links the M6 to the M7 and it needs to be prioritised. I have no doubt that Offaly County Council will most certainly do this.
The re-launch of the local improvement schemes by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, and the Taoiseach was most welcome at the National Ploughing Championships last year. There was a queue of communities waiting to avail of that funding and it was used up very quickly. I am aware that an enormous amount of funding remains in that scheme. I hope that we could get an increase in that funding. I welcome that new funding will be announced for that, as mentioned earlier today by the Taoiseach in Leaders' Questions.
Will the Minister consider looking again at the community involvement scheme? When I was a county councillor we found it to be a marvellous way to ensure that roads in the charge of the local authority could be resurfaced or have some structural work, in partnership with people in the rural area who had access to various types of mechanical equipment. It was very good value for money and was a tremendous scheme. I hope the Minister might consider that.
I will look at the scheme again. We have looked at it since I came into office, but financial constraints and priorities have restrained us from putting any more money into it. We will consider it in the next budget.
Funding for road maintenance and improvement in County Offaly is provided by the council's own resources, supplemented by grants. The allocation for 2018 is expected to be announced in the next two weeks. The Department has also emphasised to all councils the importance of prioritising expenditure on roads when allocating their own resources, including local property tax receipts.
The main grant programmes operated by the Department are focused on specific policy objectives such as surface sealing to protect the road surface from water damage. Restoration maintenance grants cover road strengthening, based on pavement condition and weighting, to lengthen the life of roads. Restoration improvement grants are discretionary grant schemes that cover various activities including the provision for winter maintenance. These three grant programmes account for most of the grant funding and are allocated based on the length of the road network in a particular local authority area.
Applications for funding under the low-cost safety improvement scheme in 2018 were invited on 26 September 2017. Councils were made aware of the conditions for the applications for funding and were advised that preference would be given in the cost range of €2,000 to €30,000, and that proposals in the higher cost ranges of €30,000 to €250,000 may be considered if the benefit-to-cost ratio was promising. Offaly County Council applied for funding for six schemes to the sum of €292,000. The council will be notified shortly of allocation of funding for these schemes. It is up to individual local authorities to submit applications in order of priority. Allocations to individual municipal districts within the county are a matter for the county council and the Department has no role in that process. TII is progressing major pavement renewal and strengthening schemes on the N52 and N62, costing a total of €1.97 million. TII operates a programme of minor works and maintenance works, including winter maintenance. TII is undertaking a number of such schemes in County Offaly. TII has allocated €2.5 million to Offaly County Council in 2018.