Wednesday, 23 March 2005
West Link Toll Bridge: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to take urgent measures to open the West Link Toll Bridge on Dublin's M50 motorway.
We are here to discuss the issue of the West Link toll bridge. This motion calls on the Government to take urgent measures to ensure that the West Link toll bridge is opened as soon as possible to alleviate the traffic problems on that stretch of the M50. It is a deliberately broad motion, designed to give an opening to the Government to come forward with any proposals it sees fit to alleviate the appalling problem that faces commuters on the M50 at the West Link.
The lack of logic regarding the toll bridge plaza is staggering. If one goes out there at peak hours from Monday to Friday and stands on the southern side, when the majority of the traffic is going north, one can see miles of vehicles on one side of the gates and empty space on the other. A simple solution would be to open those gates to the traffic. National Toll Roads, NTR, and the Government have decided that this is not the optimum solution.
When a deal was struck between NTR and the authorities in 1987, the projections for traffic estimated that in the region of 11,000 cars per day would use the motorway. Those 11,000 cars represent only one third of the vehicles that actually use the M50. Approximately 95,000 vehicles pass through the West Link toll bridge plaza each day. Such levels of traffic were not even dreamt of at the time the deal was struck. Some people would say that NTR deserves its good luck because it took a risk and is reaping the benefits. That is a fair point. However, what is happening at present is not in the public interest. It is damaging to the public good, to the people involved and to the economy. All that time wasted by vibrant, energetic and often young people is indefensible in economic terms. However, this particular wrong continues to obtain.
The campaign to open the toll gates was provoked by an extraordinary 20% price rise, imposed on 3 January 2005, from €1.50 to €1.80. That was an opportunist price increase and an extraordinary piece of profiteering. NTR is well aware that current traffic levels were not even conceived of at the time of the agreement. It knows that the agreement is water tight and it is also aware that the problem of the M50 and the toll bridge will worsen in the coming years. The worse the problem gets, the better it is for NTR. The situation is going to get a great deal worse because the number of vehicles passing through the toll plaza will increase and NTR will make even more money.
What are we to do about this? There is an obligation on the Government to do something to alleviate the situation because NTR is not going to do anything. Building another lane on the M50 will make the situation worse in the short term. We know that the proposed repairs to the M50 will take approximately five years to complete. Lanes will be closed during this time. As a result, when the traffic increases, the capacity for carrying it will decrease. This is an acute situation. The M50 is not yet completed but I suspect it will be by August of this year. What will be the result of that? When the last leg is completed, there will be even more traffic on the road and the situation at the toll bridge will continue to worsen. As the average motorist is obliged to endure these difficulties, NTR will make even greater profits. That is immoral, wrong and unethical.
I do not dispute that a deal was struck by NTR in 1987 — a further deal was reached at a later date — which was brilliant in its conception and in terms of its enterprise. However, no Government can allow a business to develop in a way that is so constantly and obviously against the public interest.
What is NTR's reaction to all of this? Apart from increasing the toll from €1.50 to €1.80, which it is perfectly entitled to do under the agreement, the company has conducted a particularly lively lobby in recent weeks. When this campaign began, we arranged to send a large number of e-mails to NTR, the Government and the Department of Transport. Over 5,000 were sent before the campaign was halted. I apologise to the Minister for blocking his in-box for so long but these things must be done. I am aware that the message got through. Irate drivers from Meath and Kildare, in particular, informed the Minister that the position was unacceptable. NTR received the same number of e-mails and proceeded to reply to them meticulously and on an individual basis.
Every Member of the House was lobbied prior to this debate and received a significant amount of literature that contains misinformation. This is the way lobbying works in the House. Lobbyists have enormous clout and power. It appears that in recent months these people have had free access to Members of the House. The average motorist does not enjoy this privilege. If NTR's lobbyists are effective, they will copperfasten the deal with the Government and motorists will continue to suffer. That is neither fair nor right.
We should give greater consideration to the attitude of the Government — which has done nothing in terms of lessening the misery experienced by commuters — than to that of NTR. Formal and informal contacts with the Government draw the response that a watertight contract was agreed and nothing can be done. The Government says it is tied into the contract so everybody must continue to suffer. Fortunately, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Callely, broke ranks by objecting to the price rise and asking that something be done about it. God bless him for that. We may see him later this evening, if we are lucky. The Minister rapped him over the knuckles in an effective way and Deputy Callely has been silent since. If Deputy Callely comes before the House, I will offer him some of my summing-up time to tell us whether his position has changed. It would be interesting to know that. The Government's initial position of doing nothing is unfortunate.
The original deal, over which the Government stands, and which it uses as its protection, was unprecedented in its generosity to a company. No such deal with any toll company today would be tolerated now. NTR was given preferential monopolistic treatment over which no Government could stand now.
——namely, that Mr. Flynn and Mr. Redmond signed the deal renders it controversial and that is why it should be re-examined. The price the Government paid is continued unpopularity and, more seriously, the recent loss of a by-election. It is no coincidence that Deputy Catherine Murphy, the Independent candidate, won the by-election in County Kildare. Deputy Catherine Murphy, according to her by-election literature, backed the campaign to open the toll bridge plaza. She attended the meetings and she has said it since her election.
Senator Kate Walsh also backed that campaign. I will welcome her vote with us on this motion because she specifically stated that she was 100% behind it. We will also welcome Senators Morrissey and Bohan, if they are consistent with what they have said on this issue. There is a great deal of support from the Government side for this but let us see what happens when it comes to a vote.
I have two questions for the Minister, in reply to which he may depart from his script. I have just come from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport at which the chief executive of the NRA said that it is in discussions with the Department and that a buy-out of the toll bridge plaza is not off the agenda. Will the Minister respond to that and say whether any dialogue is under way with NTR at present? Does he agree with the NRA that open tolling — his apparent solution to this problem — will take until 2008 and 2009 to introduce? In other words, is this misery going to continue for a minimum of another three or four years?
I welcome the opportunity to second the motion. I compliment my colleague, Senator Ross — after 20 years of trying — on finding an issue on which we are in absolute agreement. I am appalled by the Government amendment. I do not see the sense in it. It is utterly unpolitical and has the hallmark of people who have been too long in office. They are in a comfort zone. It does not reflect the views of anybody I know.
While I wholeheartedly support the motion, I do not support my colleague's final point. I do not know what it would cost to buy out the toll bridges but, on a very rough calculation, if NTR is earning €25 million or €30 million a year — this would probably rise to €40 million with the extra lanes — and that is capitalised at 5%, the sum involved is significant. If buying back the toll bridges was to cost as much as Luas, there would be a public outcry. We should take them back and do whatever appropriate deal can be done in that context. According to the Government amendment, the extra lanes are intended to increase the capacity of the M50. That could be amended to read "increase the income to NTR and the Government". NTR's point that €1 of every €1.80 goes to the Government is significant.
This causes extraordinary and unquantifiable angst to people during the day. It increases costs relating to child minding and productivity and increases the stress experiences by those who are delayed on the M50 each day. This is not all the fault of NTR. On each occasion a plan has been drawn up, it has been wrong. There are good reasons for this. In some cases, for example, nobody could have anticipated the significant increase in traffic. Extra lanes are about to be opened on the toll plaza.
Senator Morrissey has frequently raised the issue of placing large park and ride facilities at every junction on the M50. The absence of these is a problem. Making such facilities available would also require the provision of bus services to carry passengers along the radial routes, not the M50, into the city.
Does the Minister know that there is no free public park and ride facility on the north side of Dublin? Many people park their cars in the car parks of pubs on the N1, N2 and N3 before catching buses to work at 6 a.m. As part of any increase in lanes, NTR should be required to pay for the new lanes that will generate extra money. There should be a significant park and ride facility at each junction on the motorway.
In addition to extra lanes, a rail line should be laid alongside the M50. I do not understand why that is not done with every new road. It would provide a contact point for the length of the M50 and open a new range of possibilities to ease traffic in Dublin. Motorists would then get something back for funding the motorway.
There may be cities in Europe where one must pay to travel on main ring roads. However, even though I have driven through all of western Europe, I do not know of one city where this is the case. Even in cities comparable in the size to Dublin — I refer here to Lyons — when one enters the urban zone, one leaves the toll area. This is the normal practice. Anyone travelling long distances on continental or French roads, in particular, will find this. I cannot understand why we are stuck with this problem and cannot find a solution.
I have referred on many occasions to toll bridges. What bothers me most about the deal done 30 years ago are not just the issues raised by Senator Ross. I accept the argument that much of what happened could not be anticipated. I resented at the time that taxpayers were funding the building of a 20 km or 30 km road while another crowd was building a bridge across it and gaining from it. I am on record at the time as saying it was a bad deal. As we move forward, we must examine the broader issues. I am certain that the points raised by Senator Ross about the public view on this issue are correct. There is public anxiety and public opposition to this project. There is no support for the 20% increase which happened and more money being put into the coffers of NTR and the Government at the expense of people who are responsible for productivity in this country.
We heard this morning that a 6% increase in economic growth is expected over the next number of years. This is being delivered by the people who are being charged to get to work to deliver this economic growth. This is neither correct nor necessary. It does not fit in with the plan to share wealth.
We need to find a legal means to extricate ourselves from this situation. I do not believe we can afford to pay a capitalised amount based on the current significant and extraordinary income. The more we increase the income, the more difficult this will become. We should attempt to reduce toll charges before there are any negotiations on a buy-out. Agreeing to increased toll charges, while talking about a buy-out, is simply spending money to line the coffers of National Toll Roads which already has plenty money. We need to pull back from this. I do not blame the company. It exists to make a profit; that is its God. The bottom line is that the company's job is to make a profit. It is up to us to put restraints on it and give it back to the people. We should introduce Bertie's socialism to modern Ireland. This is an amenable step forward towards that particular philosophy.
The motion tabled by Senator Ross will strike a chord and get support from ordinary people. The Government's amendment fails to address and engage with the issue; it is a diversion.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
"welcomes the priority being accorded to the M50 Upgrade project and notes that the upgrade works will substantially increase the capacity of the M50, improve traffic flow, reduce congestion on the radial routes and incorporate a move to barrier free tolling".
I welcome the Minister to the House for this important debate. There has been much talk for some time in this House and outside about this issue. There have been many soundbites and much talk about gridlock. This is something which concerns all of us and needs to be addressed. I contend that the Government is doing its best in a difficult situation. Obviously it is trying to overcome this problem.
Much of the talk has centred around supposed solutions. I am not sure that what I have heard this evening puts forward a feasible solution. There are a number of basic facts which the Government and all of us must take into account. National Toll Roads' initial contract was for the construction and thereafter the operation of the two bridges, making up the West Link. The initial contract dates back to August 1987 and the contract for the second bridge dates back to 2001. The State entered into these contracts in good faith. While the contract was based on the best available traffic projections and estimates at the time, it was also based on the state of the economy. It would be worthwhile recalling the economic environment in 1987 when these projections were made.
Senator Ross outlined that the projections were for approximately 20,000 vehicles per day. This number has now reached in excess of 90,000 vehicles on an average day, and at certain times of the year it peaks at approximately 100,000 vehicles a day. There is no doubt this is a significant increase on what was projected and has created great strain.
It is well documented that the country was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1987. We should also remember who changed this around, but I do not want to get into a lecture on economics.
Is that correct? The Senator has a better memory than the rest of us.
In 1987, the incoming Government faced some very difficult political and social challenges which had to be undertaken. There were hospital closures, bed closures and ward closures. Various taxes were introduced to try to meet current spending and deal with the capital requirements. I was talking to someone today and we were trying to figure out the real bad points in 1987. Some local authorities considered turning off street lights because they could not afford to pay the bills. If one tries to recognise the difficulties the Government faced at the time, it might help to shed some light on why this deal was put together, why it was acceptable and why it was considered a good deal. At the time, there was rising inflation, company closures, job losses and a return of the scourge of emigration.
There is no doubt the deal was reached against this backdrop. As Senator Burke pointed out, substantial work on this contract was done by the former Minister for the Public Service in the 1982-87 coalition Government, John Boland. In light of the poor state of the country's finances, and the grim outlook for the economy, it was a good deal at the time. It would be unfair to apportion blame to anyone. Senator Ross made a couple of snide comments about a former Minister, Mr. Flynn. I understand he was just the signatory to the deal. A substantial part of the negotiations was carried out by the previous Government, but the Senator made a snide insinuation that some sort of a cosy deal was done. He named another council official to create this broad implication. This remark needs to be rubbished and put to one side.
There has been tremendous growth in the economy as a result of the actions taken by that Government and successive Governments since 1987. The success of these policies has led to this overcrowding. We will move on from that by recognising that we are where we are. We are in a difficult situation with which people must grapple on a daily basis. I met many of these people when I was canvassing in Kildare during the by-election campaign. There is no doubt that these people are facing some very difficult times, which Senator O'Toole highlighted.
The solutions being suggested by the Opposition, a number of Independents and others are ludicrous. Opening up the barriers will ultimately lead to the payment of compensation to NTR. There is a contract in place but if the Government finds some methodology to take back the bridges into State control, which Senator O'Toole advocated, what will that say to companies the Government is trying to bring to this country to become involved in PPP projects? It would effectively say to them that we are running some sort of despot operation as an excuse for a Government. It would imply that if we do not like what happens after signing up to a contract, we are prepared to rubbish it, throw it in the bin, take back the contract and tell companies to take a hike. That would be a dreadful precedent to set. It would mitigate against any PPP projects that the Government might in the future want to undertake and is something we should not enter into.
The other suggestion was to buy back the bridge. The cost of that would be phenomenal. The money available to the Department of Transport in its Estimate could be spent much better in other parts of the country. While recognising the difficulties associated with the M50, there is life outside the M50. There is life in the BMW region, which I am sure Senator Wilson will discuss, and in the mid-west where I come from. Many infrastructural projects need investment.
We would be happy to have them if they overcame some of our problems. However, we should not use funds that are badly needed for road, hospital or school building projects in other parts of the country to buy back that infrastructure. There is a daily cry from the Opposition about the fact that sufficient funds are not being invested in other sectors. From where would that money come? I would certainly not make suggestions in that regard.
Tolls are required at present. The real solution lies in the upgrading of the M50, as outlined by the Government. Is there a way this can be expedited? There are issues surrounding planning, associated appeals and compulsory purchase orders. We cannot address these overnight but we must deal with them as quickly as possible. The plan is set out in two phases and involves a huge amount of money. I would not, therefore, advocate the opening of the tolls because the money that will be generated in the coming years will be needed to pay for the upgrading. People must accept reality. The costs, which are in the region of €1 billion, are phenomenal.
Negative comments were made about NTR. Like a number of other spokespersons, I have met NTR representatives in order to be briefed on their background issues. It seems clear that they are doing a relatively good job in line with the conditions set out in their contract. When benchmarked against UK and European operators — I refer, in particular, to Dartford Toll — the throughput, in terms of tolling, on the West Link is approximately 22% greater than on the busiest thoroughfare in Europe.
I am not telling the Minister anything he has not known for a long period when I state that the solution is to ensure, notwithstanding the constraints that exist, that the upgrading takes place as quickly as possible. We must also ensure that funding is provided by the continued imposition of tolling on the relevant roads.
I welcome the Minister. I do not intend to rubbish NTR and I agree with Senator Dooley that it was a good provider of infrastructure at a time when the country could not afford it. It is doing a good job in so far as is possible. However, we must consider the environment in which it works. It is not NTR's fault that the current situation exists. Problems relating to planning and the delivery of infrastructure have led to this situation and to the need for Senator Ross to table this motion, which I support.
Problems with gridlock are of the Government's making. The Government parties have been in power long enough to improve the relevant infrastructure. I live within a stone's throw of the M50, so I know what happens on it on a daily basis and am aware of its impact on local communities. The M50 was very aspirational for its time in that it was to be a European route and not a local road. Now, however, it is a local road serving local needs. It was never built for that purpose. We have known for many years that this is the case and that an outer ring road is needed. In the absence of that ring road, there is traffic congestion — and not just at peak times — each day on the M50. The barriers must be lifted to keep traffic flowing, even if it is only moving at 10 mph or 20 mph. There is no need for speed limits because one can never reach the maximum limit in the vicinity of the toll bridge.
This situation will not improve until we get proper infrastructure in the area. This is where the Government is at fault. In the absence of the infrastructure to which I refer, the Minister must do whatever is necessary to keep traffic flowing — even if it is at 15 or 20 mph. There is no doubt that the toll bridge is delaying traffic. While one can travel from the airport to Finglas at 50 mph, the traffic is queued up from Finglas onwards trying to get through the toll bridge. Once one is through the toll bridge, one can travel at a reasonable speed once again. It would help clear the clogging if the toll bridge was open to traffic. Conor Faughnan of the AA has spoken about this issue for years and supports the idea of opening the gates to traffic.
If the Government parties' amendment had included the provision of the outer ring road, I would have seen some credibility in what is proposed tonight. However, what is proposed does nothing to further the cause of trying to build a proper infrastructure in the area. When the M50 was first built, rat-running occurred on all local roads. Motorists did not want to pay the charge and tried to avoid doing so by using other roads. Senator Morrissey will be aware of this. Motorists still use the local roads, not to avoid paying the toll but to avoid congestion on the M50.
It is time we took the planning and delivery of our infrastructure seriously. The number of cars currently on our roads is unsustainable. The widening of the M50 will result in an increased number of cars into the area and impose intolerable pain on motorists and the local community. Will the Minister indicate when he will provide for the new outer ring road to relieve congestion? If we fail to address the problems of the M50 and the general infrastructure in the area, we will not be able to continue the economic growth of recent years and the economy will suffer. People will not want to locate in Ireland, particularly as they will be constantly stuck in traffic.
We are not dealing with the issue of removing motorists from our roads. I agree with Senator Ross that we need park and ride facilities. We have requested these for many years but one such facility has yet to be delivered. People should be able to park their car, pay for the privilege and be transported into the city by bus. That should not just be for those coming from the outer suburbs but also those on the orbital route. We should have more buses on that route. I also support the concept of putting in place a rail line.
I fully support what Senator Ross is saying. Senator Morrissey, local people and I have been saying it for many years. However, our words have fallen on deaf ears. It is time the Government woke up to the fact that it can no longer continue in this mode.
While I accept that it was a different time, NTR has done very well out of the deal and it recognises that fact. I call on NTR, in accepting that it has had a good deal, to hand responsibility for the tolls back to the State. I am not suggesting the company should hand it back free of charge. However, the money that would be saved in getting our traffic moving would be worth it for the economy. It would be a small price to pay. A figure of €400 million has been mentioned. Will the Minister indicate how much he estimates it would cost to buy back the tolls? It would be money well spent if it helped to keep the economy moving. Senator Dooley disagrees. He does not feel the pain motorists have to endure on that road every day.
I fully support the motion and call on the Minister to be proactive and consider this issue seriously. It would be a good day's work if the toll could be done away with and the traffic allowed to flow, even at 20 mph. The toll bridge is nothing but a money-making machine at this stage. That is not good enough. We are not delivering a service to our people or to the country. It is time to ensure that this comes to an end.
I thank Senators for their contributions. I thank Senator Ross for tabling the motion and Senator O'Toole for seconding it. They have given me the opportunity to come before the House to debate the important issue of the upgrade of the M50, including a move to barrier-free tolling.
The growth of traffic on the M50 mirrors the growth of Ireland's population, its economy, employment and vehicle fleet during the past ten years. The scale of this growth has imposed major strains on our physical infrastructure, particularly that which relates to transport. The Government has responded to this challenge by a sustained commitment to high levels of capital investment. In the case of national roads, for example, Exchequer investment in 2005 alone will amount to over €1.4 billion. The beneficial impact of this high level of investment is evident throughout the country in the completion of major projects and the elimination of major bottlenecks such as those at Monasterevin, Kildare, Ballincollig, Cashel, etc. Good progress is being made in implementing the national roads improvement programme and we are beginning to see the benefits in reduced inter-urban journey times on key routes.
A major project in this programme is the upgrade of the M50, including the West Link toll facility, which is being prioritised by the National Roads Authority. Before outlining the main elements of this project, it would be useful to set out the background to the West Link toll facility and the position regarding toll revenues, the impact of the toll plaza on congestion and the application of West Link experience in recent PPP contracts. I shall also address the issue of a buy-out of the toll rights.
The original West Link toll agreement was approved in principle by the Government in October 1984 on foot of proposals by the then Minister for the Environment, Mr. Liam Kavanagh, and concluded in October 1987 between Dublin County Council and NTR. The agreement provided for the construction, maintenance and operation of 3.2 km of motorway on the M50 between the N3, Navan Road, and the N4, Galway Road, interchanges as well as the West Link bridge spanning 385 m over the Liffey valley. The project, which was one of the first sections of the M50 Dublin C-ring to be completed, opened to traffic in 1990.
The 1984 agreement provides that the toll company, NTR plc., has, until the expiry of the agreement in 2020, the exclusive right to toll traffic travelling on the M50 between the N4, Galway Road interchange, and the N3, Navan Road interchange. It also provides that the tolls can be increased in line with inflation. The maximum toll that can be charged at West Link is updated each year by reference to the consumer price index.
The bridge was opened to traffic in 1990. Prior to the conclusion of the agreement in 1987, average annual daily traffic for 1990 was projected at 18,400 vehicles. Average daily traffic levels grew from 11,500 vehicles in 1991, to more than 15,000 in 1993, to 45,500 in 1997, 67,000 in 2000 and to more than 78,000 in 2003. It should be noted that the level of traffic projected for 1990 was not reached until 1995. I was in the House at the time and remember the debate on the cost involved, particularly in light of the fact that the traffic projections were nowhere near to being achieved. That is set against the background of a big change today.
In November 1999 the National Roads Authority reached agreement with NTR relating to the construction of the second West Link bridge. The agreement provided for the construction of the second bridge and a car toll increase of approximately 20 cent. The draft agreement was concluded on the then legal basis that VAT was not applicable to tolls. In July 2000, however, the European Court of Justice ruled that VAT must be applied to tolls. The effect of the application of VAT on the draft agreement would have been for the private car toll charge to rise from approximately €1 — 80p in old money — as was the toll charge for the period 1 January 2001 to end of August 2001, to a car toll charge of €1.60 on 1 January 2002.
The National Roads Authority was concerned at a rise in the toll charge of effectively 60% in the space of four months, September 2001 to January 2002, particularly as there would be no improvement in the level of service at West Link until September 2003, when the second bridge was due to be opened.
The National Roads Authority, therefore, with the approval of the then Department of the Environment and Local Government, agreed with NTR in June 2001, as part of the supplemental agreement relating to the second West Link bridge, a revised toll structure for the period September 2001 to 31 December 2004, to take account of the imposition of VAT and the construction of the second bridge. This agreement provided for a car toll charge of €1.27 between September and December 2001, €1.30 in 2002, €1.30 in 2003 and €1.50 in 2004. The maximum allowable toll permissible under the agreement for each of the years 2002, 2003 and 2004 would have been €1.60, €1.70 and €1.70, respectively.
This lower car toll structure was made possible by the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government agreeing to moderating the increase in the car toll by means of a reduction in the State's share of the gross toll revenue in 2002 and 2003. This reduction amounted to €2.9 million and €3.5 million for 2002 and 2003, respectively.
The West Link car toll was maintained below the maximum allowable toll charge for a number of years through the Government foregoing part of the revenue share payable under the West Link toll agreement, that is, the actual car toll was not allowed to increase in accordance with the applicable by-laws. The rises in 2004, 20 cent, and 2005, 30 cent, represent, in effect, a catch up of the indexation provisions and the car toll increase required by NTR to provide for the construction of the second bridge.
The position in regard to total toll revenues since 1990 is that gross toll revenue from 1990 to end 2004 amounted to €308.987 million, exclusive of VAT. Of this, a total of €64.397 million in licence fees, also referred to as the State's share of the gross toll revenue, has been paid to the State. During the period 1998-2004, commercial rates of €10.4 million, a not insignificant amount, were paid to Fingal County Council, while South Dublin County Council received €2.5 million during the same period. In addition, gross VAT receipts since 1 September 2001 amount to approximately €28 million.
It is clear that the concession has worked out well for NTR but it should be acknowledged that from the toll revenue it receives, it has to meet liabilities arising in respect of the repayment of capital and interest and the operation and maintenance of the toll facility and 3.2 km of motorway, corporation tax rates payable to Fingal and South Dublin county councils, the Exchequer share of toll receipts payable to the Department of Transport and investment in the toll road to ensure a high-quality road pavement. Some have proposed that the State buy out NTR on the basis that the toll plaza is causing congestion and that NTR is earning super profits. Where tolls are abolished altogether the agreement provides that the NRA must make a monthly payment to NTR, calculated on the basis of the preceding 12 months average, to the value of the lost revenues with such amount indexed each year by reference to CPl, in respect of the remaining years of the toll concession agreement, which, as already indicated, will run until 2020. The House can imagine the scale and cost to the taxpayer and the money that will be lost instead of being invested in other road infrastructure which is badly needed.
It should also be noted that the €650 million estimated cost of phase two of the M50 upgrade works is proposed to be funded through the annual Exchequer share of the West Link toll revenue as well as toll revenues from West Link for a period post the expiry of the current concession in 2020.
It is important that this is understood. The massive expansion phase of the M50 has been possible because of those revenues. If this were not available, other inter-urban routes, other roads and investment in public transport would not be possible. It is a question of trade-offs with the Exchequer trying to maximise its investment and resolving some of the issues pertaining to the M50.
Any consideration of the buy-out of NTR's rights would have to take account of the cost involved and the implications for the national roads programme if the cost had to be funded from the funding provision available for the national roads programme and the implications for the funding of the M50 upgrade.
It is acknowledged that the toll plaza is sub-optimal, having regard to the current daily traffic throughput and that the approaches and departure sections are inadequate for the high traffic levels.
There are also infrastructure deficiencies along other sections of the M50 particularly at key interchanges. It is the combination of these factors that gives rise to the delays experienced by motorists using the M50 as well as the radial routes traversing the M50. Removing the toll plaza would not in itself, and pending the upgrade of the M50, make a major difference at peak hour when the interchanges are congested. The NRA's plans for the M50 upgrade comprehensively address these issues.
The following may be of interest to Senator Ross and others. In a recent presentation on the M50, figures seemed to demonstrate that the toll plaza is far and away a lesser problem. The real and substantive problems on the M50 are caused by the access and exit routes. I have seen all the graphs which demonstrate this problem. I am neither an engineer nor an expert so I can only take at face value the information I am given. It strikes me that if the barriers were taken away at peak hours tomorrow morning, for argument's sake, it would not make one whit of difference to the congestion.
I want to do it in conjunction with the other developments I have referred to in the House. It will make a difference in conjunction with the expansion of the M50. It will be necessary to consider demand management as a feature in traffic control around Dublin in the longer term. This will need to be considered in the context of the completion of many of the developments in Dublin. The M50 was designed to be used by bypass traffic but less than 14% of the traffic using the M50 is bypass traffic. Local traffic accounts for 84% of the traffic even though the motorway was never designed to be so used.
In case of misunderstanding, the route to which I referred recently in the context of the ten-year investment strategy in public transport was not an alternative M50 or a second M50; it is a completely different route with a different purpose. Its impact on the M50 will not be very significant, bearing in mind that the traffic on the M50 is largely local traffic. The route to which I referred has the potential to take traffic trying to bypass Dublin away from Dublin. The route has not been selected. I have asked the NRA to consider the plan and maps have been published in the newspapers which show notional routes from Drogheda cutting across to Navan and Naas. By naming those towns I do not mean that will be the route. This will take true Dublin bypass traffic away from the city. I am not presenting it as a second M50 and it would be wrong to suggest that.
It will only be involved in the planning stages. I have no plans in that regard. The more I look at Dublin and access to the centre of Dublin, the more I am convinced that public transport is the core solution.
I agree. We have all been up and down on those issues but we are where we are. The greatest opponents of the Luas are now its greatest supporters. Some in both Houses and those in the media did nothing but criticise it on a daily basis. Once it was opened it was loved and is a marvellous addition, proving beyond doubt that such transport has a significant capacity to make a contribution to the future solution in Dublin. I will not speak much further on that subject because I will be regarded as trading off different projects against others. What is needed is a total and holistic solution to Dublin's problems and that is what the Government and I intend to deliver in the ten-year transport investment programme.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the original agreement, approved in principle in October 1984 and concluded in October 1987, has proven to be very profitable for NTR. I wish to make it clear, however, that the experience gained from the West Link agreement has informed the development and negotiation of recent PPP contracts. In the past 24 months the NRA has entered into three PPP contracts. The contractual obligations within these PPP contracts are extremely elaborate and onerous when compared to those in the West Link toll bridge agreement. Some of the key differences from the 1987 deal concluded on the West Link are a competitive tendering process in accordance with national and EU tendering procedures; specialist traffic and financial advice in assessment of tenders; more optimal revenue sharing arrangements; contract variation provisions to facilitate changes in tolling technologies; and exacting toll plaza performance standards aimed at ensuring efficient throughput of vehicles. I ask Senator Ross to note that I do not accept it will take four or five years to put open tolling in place.
I have informed the NRA I do not accept that timeframe and I wish to put that on the record of the House. I cannot understand why it would take that long. This is not new technology that must be invented; it already exists. I know it is not as simple as putting in the new technology but with a direct approach and a little effort in this regard, it would take a lot less time in my view. I have not been persuaded by NTR as to that timeframe.
The financial terms of the PPP contracts have been scrutinised by the NRA's financial advisers. This included sensitivity analyses and an assessment of potential profit returns to the PPP company at traffic volumes in excess of both the PPP company's forecasts and NRA forecasts. The NRA's advisers have concluded that the contracts entered into represent value for money for the public sector and that the revenue-sharing arrangement included in the contracts is such that the PPP company will not earn excessive profits from these schemes arising from unanticipated growth in traffic volumes.
These new PPP contracts, among other things, specify exacting performance standards that the PPP company must meet in respect of the toll facility operations. They are aimed at ensuring high customer service standards and minimum delay at toll plazas. Failure to observe these requirements will entail penalties on the PPP companies.
The NRA is mandating in the contracts that electronic toll collection must be provided across all toll lanes as well as providing one dedicated ETC lane on all plazas in each direction for cars and light vehicles, increasing to two lanes in each direction should traffic volumes require it. In the future all tolling will be of this nature.
I hope the foregoing has clarified the key aspects of the West Link agreement. It will be clear from what I have said that the solution to the peak hour congestion on the M50 requires the implementation of the M50 upgrade project and a move to open road tolling at West Link. The M50 upgrade motorway scheme and EIS were published in September 2004 and were the subject of an An Bord Pleanála oral hearing in February 2005. The upgrade involves the widening of approximately 32 km of the motorway from two to three lanes in each direction, from the M50 M1 interchange near Dublin Airport through to the Sandyford interchange, which is under construction, and the upgrade of ten junctions along this length.
Subject to favourable decisions from An Bord Pleanála on the proposal, the NRA envisages that the design and build contract will be awarded by October 2005 for phase one, the N4 to the N7 section, and that the PPP contract for the remainder of the upgrade project will follow next year. The NRA's required solution for the West Link toll facility is to move on a phased basis to open road tolling. The environmental impact statement for the M50 upgrade project provides for a move on a phased basis to open road electronic tolling. The transition from the current toll collection arrangements to a non-stop electronic toll collection facility will be implemented over a number of stages.
In summary, the solution to the problems on the M50 and at West Link is the upgrade of the M50 and a move to barrier-free open road tolling. This will provide increased capacity to improve traffic flow on the M50 and on radial routes connecting to the M50, and the removal of the manual payments arrangements.
I live almost as far away as is possible from the M50 and my experiences of that particular toll bridge are those I would associate with the worst kind of monopoly. The last time I was there, the signage was indifferent to the customer. A little sign read "Toll Ahead" and by the time one got close enough to know what lane one should be in, one was already in a lane. By the time one found out how to pay, one was almost at the plaza. Not having proper signs far enough away to tell people where they were going, how they could pay and how much to pay shows extraordinary indifference to customers and is classic behaviour of a body that believes it has a cosy monopoly and does not need to think for a second about its customers.
I am intrigued by the fact that over the past ten years we have gone to elaborate lengths to break down public sector monopolies and to create semi-artificial markets, as with the ESB, to try to have competition, while at the same time we are effectively protecting private sector monopolies. Comreg is now threatening to reimpose price controls on Eircom because of rip-offs. What is Government about if it is not to able to do something about a manifestly appalling contract? I do not accept that it is impossible to look at that contract again. Currently, the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, is endeavouring to renegotiate the contracts of thousands of hospital consultants because she does not like them. One solution an economist has suggested, if the contract will not be renegotiated, is to build another bridge that people can use for free and NTR can live with the consequences. I despair sometimes when I read ministerial scripts. According to the Minister, the key differences from the 1987 deal are competitive tendering processes, specialist traffic and financial advice. Did we really make major capital investments in this country without specialist advice?
The reality is that NTR, owned by people who were good friends of Fianna Fáil, was given a sweetheart deal. Let us remember what happened. NTR took fright with the East Link and so were guaranteed against loss. After experimenting and discovering that one could make a great deal of money out of bridges, NTR said it wanted to build the West Link, and in that case a guarantee against loss was not sought because it knew what it was facing. The truth is that in spite of all of the other problems, that bridge and those toll booths are a major nuisance for commuters. It is impossible to get away from that. The question for someone living away from Dublin is how to relieve the misery of almost 1 million people in the 100,000 vehicles per day that go through there.
When the second bridge was built how did somebody agree that there would be a smaller number of pay booths than there is proposed for the Portlaoise to Castletown motorway or the Fermoy bypass? In those cases, the forecast traffic in 20 years time will be less than 30,000 vehicles per day. Each of those will have six or seven booths in each direction. On a motorway that has 100,000 vehicles per day there are five booths in each direction and nobody thought about doing something about that at the time of the reconstruction of the second bridge. The second bridge was not in the original contract so how is it tied into it? Why is that copper-fastened? Somebody agreed to that deal with NTR which meant it was alright to do the same thing twice. The logic is not there. An indefensible position is being created. The little hint at the end of it that will delight commuters in Dublin is that tolling on the West Link will continue long after 2020 to finance the M50 widening. I have no problems with tolling. My party takes a different position but I am well able to argue with my party and my colleagues and have done for years.
The Minister in his script mentions penalties if the criteria are not met. It would be lovely to know what the criteria will be for future tolls. Will it be a five minute, ten minute or 20 minute delay? What we do know is that in the famous all-Ireland final in which there were two Ulster counties, there was a queue of traffic endeavouring to come on to the new motorway at the Drogheda bypass so long that the gardaí had to instruct NTR, who were doing the job at the time, to raise the barriers to let the traffic through in the interests of public safety.
If there are performance criteria, what are they and are they substantial in nature? The very least that should come out of this debacle is a certainty in the future that tolls will be operated efficiently, fairly and at levels which do not function as a disincentive for the use of modern motorways. I will be satisfied if the funds are then used to build more good roads.
I agree with the Minister of State in his throwaway remarks about public transport. Again, however, there is action that can be taken now, not so much in Dublin but in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and other areas. Such action would require that all development plans for the next ten years incorporate at least land allocation for off-road public transport, even if it is not to be built for 20 years. If we must retrofit to every one of our other cities a Luas system or other type of off-road public transport, with the enormous associated cost of property acquisition and land and construction costs, we will have a Dublin-type situation in every major city within 20 years. We should instead make proper provision and plan for the future.
I support the motion. It is long overdue that the question of this abuse of monopoly should be dealt with by the Oireachtas.
I am pleased Senator Ross has put down this motion. It is amazing that any Member should claim to have heard me utter anything about open tolling and I defy them to produce any evidence to that effect. Neither I nor my party would be so reckless.
The problem is that the M50 has been successful. We will never know the type of debate that would have taken place today had the forecasts upon which this entire venture was based materialised. Senator Dooley referred to some aspects of the economic environment. The economic stagnation of the early 1980s was followed by an improvement in the second half of that decade, with average growth increasing to 4.4%. The early 1990s was another period of slow growth, with an average growth rate of 2.8% from 1990 to 1993 before the emergence of the Celtic tiger in 1994. Unemployment stood at 17% in 1986 and at 16% in 1993. Now, however, the figure is4.3%. At the time the M50 was planned, our airports and ports were filled with people flocking to leave the country. By contrast, the airports and ports now receive those who are flocking to come to Ireland.
I was a member of Fingal County Council, as was Senator Terry, from 1991 to 1995, during which time the M50 was opened. Fingal County Council and the former Dublin County Council, of which Senator Ormonde was a member, did not have in their estimates during those critical years the money to provide lighting along the motorway. Media reports at that time observed it was a dangerous road on which to travel at night. It was a crazy situation.
It is in this context that I object to the comments of Opposition Members. It is a pity that Senator Terry, in particular, is not here. As far back as the mid-1960s and early 1970s, every Dublin county development plan included the famous outer ring road. When Dublin County Council was divided into three separate entities in 1994, Fingal County Council, supported by 23 of 24 councillors, voted to remove the outer ring road from the development plan. I was the only councillor who argued that it should be retained.
Congestion on the M50 takes place primarily at the interchanges. Residents of County Meath are aware there is congestion six miles out at Dunshaughlin at 7 a.m. However, this has noting to do with the M50. It is a consequence of the problems with the interchange at Blanchardstown. More than 25,000 vehicles travel from the N3 in the Castleknock-Blanchardstown area across the M50 and on to the N4. These motorists have no alternative to this route because councillors in Fingal County Council took the development plan asunder. Coincidentally, South Dublin County Council is continuing with the old development plan. Those who travel to Galway may wonder about the location of the Woodies interchange. This was part of the outer ring road, sliced off by Fingal County Council because it did not want another bridge over the River Liffey.
People make choices every day. Any motorist travelling on the M50 can take an easy option by availing of electronic tolling through the Eazy Pass system. I use this facility and I defy any Member to claim it has not reduced congestion on the M50. On average, between two and a half and four cars will pass through the Eazy Pass lane while only one will clear the manual lane. However, the Eazy Pass lane is virtually idle at most times. One can approach the Eazy Pass booth across the new bridge without any delay and at the highest permissible speed.
It is up to motorists to make the choice. Up to 800 cars per hour can go through the Eazy Pass booth, while only some 400 can move through the manual system and 600 under the pay system.
There are actions that can be taken, therefore, to alleviate the current difficulties. The Minister of State has indicated the significant cost of upgrading the M50, involving money that will be forgone forever. It is a simple matter of supply and demand. Removing the toll will advertise to every motorist that there is a free gig at the West Link bridge and this will cause further congestion. The toll plaza can accommodate more cars per hour than the road can deliver.
I acknowledge that difficulties exist but there are ways to overcome them. I have said repeatedly that we are suffering from 2016 levels of traffic, with 2005 levels of expenditure. In regard to the ten-year programme, I am not sure we can wait that long. By improving our rail system, we will give motorists who use the N7 and N3 a choice. New proposals for an outer ring road beg the question as to what is the objective of such a facility. The Minister of State has said it is not an alternative to the M50. Will it be tolled, thus leading to the existence of two tolls on the west side of Dublin?
We must consider the short-term solutions. A link can be expedited from the N3 at Clonee across to Lucan. Only last week, Fingal County Council informed councillor Mags Murray that it had no plans to do so. This project was removed from the agenda in 1999 with the support of Senator Terry. Five years later, Fine Gael and the Labour Party were in control of the council. Not one motion was tabled at a meeting of the council to offer an alternative to the people to whom those parties refer. National Toll Roads Ireland is not only a monopoly but it is a monopoly compliments of politicians' actions, for which they should be brought to account.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this topic. I was in Dundalk yesterday and it was a joy to travel there. The Minister spoke about the roads that have been completed. The road to Dundalk is marvellous. As we crossed the bridge over the River Boyne we did not have to slow down. The tolling system seemed to work very well and I thought of the horror I have to endure every time I go through the toll station at the West Link bridge.
I am very concerned about this issue. I will not touch upon every issue I want to raise because other Senators have done so. A problem exists and I am not particularly keen on the idea that the State should buy out NTR's contract for the M50 toll bridge. The State does not seem to do a very good job negotiating such deals. Much as I admire the ingenuity of the idea that a second bridge should be built, I believe the State would be taken to court immediately by NTR if it built it.
What annoys me most about the present set of circumstances is not the profiteering at the toll station but that the toll bridge is a hindrance to the flow of traffic. I have great difficulty accepting some of the points made by the Minister and Senator Morrissey to the effect that the toll plaza does not cause the delay. I use the M50 frequently, avail of the Eazy Pass system and sometimes pass as many as 50 or 60 cars queuing up to pay by cash.
The whole point of a motorway is to get people from A to B as fast as possible. It defies belief that anybody could create a traffic bottleneck half way between those two points. Bearing in mind Senator O'Toole's remarks on tolling on the Continent, I know a deplorable problem arises if traffic jams occur at the exits to a motorway where the fast traffic feeds onto the normal road system. However, this is not the major problem. It defies all sense to have traffic jams day in, day out, half way along the motorway, where traffic flow should be totally unrestricted. The worst aspect of this situation is that such traffic jams are unnecessary.
Senators have made some of these points already. I missed some of Senator Ross's comments but I know my point was raised when we talked about tolling roads without forcing the traffic to stop. Delays are caused quite simply by the business of collecting cash at the toll stations. Most of the motorists at the M50 toll bridge pay cash. That is part of the problem. I do not know the exact figures but I have certainly noticed 50 or 60 cars, if not hundreds, queuing in two lanes to pay cash at the toll bridge while I passed them in the lane for Eazy Pass users.
I know of no other country in which toll bridges still depend on cash collection. I first encountered a non-cash-based tolling system some ten or 12 years ago as I passed through Sitges. I could not get over the fact that the taxi driver picked me up at the airport and drove me right through the toll plaza without having to stop. I was so impressed that I wrote to Mr. Roche of NTR to tell him about it. He obviously knew about it already. However, the system has still not been introduced in Ireland. The technology to toll roads electronically exists and it is fully tried and proven. Senator Ross referred to it. I am not referring to the Eazy Pass approach, which is already in operation. It still requires each motorist to slow down to a virtual stop at the barrier as his or her pass is verified. One still has to wait for the barrier to lift before one can pass through. That technology is completely out of date. Those of us who have had a chance to visit Australia or Singapore will have seen the new technology and noted that it does work.
The operation of the state-of-the-art technology used for collecting tolls is far from rocket science. It simply involves scanning cars as they pass under a gantry at full speed. Any car without a valid pass automatically has its number plate photographed and a hefty fine is issued to its owner. The system is simple and I have seen it working in other countries. The toll is collected without the traffic having to encounter any delay whatsoever.
A system such as this, if put in place on the M50, would allow cars to pass over the bridge at full speed. There would be no delay and the constant traffic jams at the approach to the bridge would become a thing of the past. If one talks to the toll company about this, it will state it has not introduced the new technology because it has no way of pursuing those who do not pay. There is no provision in our law that allows for this. If this is the problem, it is very easily solved. I was delighted to hear the Minister say legislation is to be introduced. As we know only too well in this House, the Department of Transport can produce a new road traffic Bill at the drop of a hat.
I was stunned to hear Senator Ross state he learned today that it would be another four years before the introduction of open tolling. I was delighted to hear the Minister say that he, like Senator Ross, did not find this acceptable. It should certainly not be beyond the wit of man to write a simple Bill that would provide for the issuing of fines to anybody who passes through a toll plaza without paying and impose on the State the role of pursuing and punishing offenders.
The international experience is such that once the proper system of fining is in place, the vast majority of road users obey the law. The job of pursuing the few evaders is a relatively modest one. I suggest that, instead of urging the Government to break or buy its way out of the agreement with the toll company — both approaches are horrific and will not be adopted — we should urge it to take seriously the congestion that exists at the toll bridge. If this congestion could be prevented, the issue of paying tolls would not be so contentious.
The Government should say to NTR that the present circumstances cannot be allowed to continue and that they should sort it out together. This would be a far better approach than the present one whereby each side washes its hands of the problem and blames the other for the refusal to move forward. If the approach I advocate were adopted it would not take years to introduce new tolling technology. It could be done very quickly, but this would require action on the part of the Minister and the introduction of a new road traffic Bill. The other problems that exist in respect of the M50 are comparatively minor compared with the one the new technology would overcome.
I welcome the Minister of State and officials back to the House, just as I welcomed the Minister, who was present earlier. The Taoiseach is on record as having said that the solution to our congestion on the M50, according to traffic engineers, is the implementation of the M50 upgrade together with barrier-free tolling. I confess I am not very familiar with the toll bridge and use it only ten or 12 times per year on my way to Kilkenny. On the basis of research I have conducted and having spoken to various experts, including my colleague, Senator Dooley, I agree with the statement of the Taoiseach. There is an onus on the Government, the National Roads Authority and NTR to work together to increase the speed of access to the M50 bridges.
In 2003 the capacity of the bridge was increased by 50% as two extra lanes and an extra bridge were provided. As the Minister and a number of colleagues have stated, modern technology is such that there is no reason we cannot have barrier-free tolling. We must all put our heads together to achieve it as quickly as possible.
Most modern countries charge tolls for the use of major highways. Most of us have been to the United States where motorists are tolled on almost every road. The same is the case on the Continent and, as I can testify, in communist China.
Some Senators who are on the left of the political spectrum will be amazed to hear that. The tolls charged in China are substantially higher than those charged on the M1 and the M50. There is no reason Ireland should be any different. The toll charges on the M1 do not attract serious criticism. Initially, lorry drivers objected because they were obliged to pay a toll. However, when they discovered that the magnificent roadway to which Senator Quinn has alluded enabled them to save up to an hour on journeys, they quickly changed their tune and were delighted to pay the toll.
As Senator Dooley stated, this country was in a serious economic state when construction of the M50 began. We are all aware of this and many of the speakers have mentioned the fact. To get the road constructed, we had no option but to enter into the agreement in question. I was interested to hear Senator Morrissey outlining the history of the situation. It would make sense to many people, myself included, who use the Blanchardstown roundabout on the way to Dublin. If organisations such as National Toll Roads did not exist, we would not be in a position to provide the infrastructural developments that are under way. For example, we could not construct the badly needed M3 motorway.
I canvassed for over three weeks in County Meath and found that 99.9% of the people I met were in full agreement with the M3 motorway. The word "toll" was never mentioned, although I understand that there will be two tolls on that particular road. It will cost €1 billion to construct, which would not be feasible if we did not have a public private partnership agreement in place. There are 1.3 million taxpayers and their taxes are used to run the entire Government, not just the Department of Transport. Without public private partnerships, we could not afford to maintain our current or proposed levels of road construction.
The people of counties Meath and Cavan want to see this kind of development in the future and tolls are not a difficulty. I know that some Members will be surprised to hear a Cavan man say that. However, if the journey time from Cavan to Dublin could be shortened by 40 or 45 minutes, we would even be willing to pay the toll twice.
As Senator Dooley indicated, the people from my region want bypasses of Virginia and Belturbet put in place and the railway extended from Clonee to Navan and on to Kingscourt. Eventually, they want a railway to run from Navan to Cavan and on to Donegal. These projects cannot reach fruition without the type of investment we discussed.
Although people get annoyed about delays and hassle, the problem lies not with toll charges but with gridlock. When the M50 was designed 20 or 25 years ago, future usage was seriously underestimated. Several factors, including the growth in our economy, increased vehicle ownership, an increased number of vehicles on the road and an increase in population have contributed to peak hour gridlock on the M50. We are not alone with this problem, which is faced by all major urban centres in the western world. Our difficulty lies in how to deal with the increase in traffic. Under the national development plan, the Government continues to invest billions of euros in transport infrastructure. The improvements can be seen throughout the country in our national routes and in the wonderful Luas project. We must remember that the fallout associated with our ever-growing and unprecedented economic success cannot be solved overnight. The Government is investing more money and has been more successful in improving our infrastructure than any of its predecessors.
Senator Ross stated that my good friend and colleague, Senator Kate Walsh, is against tolls. It should be put on the record that she is not against tolls. Rather, she is opposed to queues and favours barrier-free tolls.
I also wish to take issue with Senator O'Toole who suggested that we should consider buying back the M50 toll bridges.
Coming from a political party that wishes to take Northern Ireland back, a bridge is a small thing in comparison. I welcome this motion and compliment Senator Ross for tabling it. I live beside the M50 and I am familiar with the problems associated with it. It is certain that the situation will worsen, not improve, and we must address this.
It will worsen in eight months when the port tunnel opens and brings a huge number of articulated lorries and trucks on to the M50. This will benefit Dublin city centre by relieving its traffic congestion. It will become much worse during the next year, when the M50 will be completed and will link the Belfast road with the Wexford road and all roads in between. Clearly, the situation will worsen for motorists and local communities who live beside the motorway.
I spoke earlier to a former constituent who pays just short of €800 a year to cross the bridge twice a day, or ten times a week, for 11 months a year. The individual in question takes one month's holidays. He and his family must pay almost €800 in after-tax income for the privilege of using the M50. To put this in context, most people who live near the M50 have barely managed to obtain mortgages. What he is paying represents a substantial amount of after-tax income every year. The issue must be addressed, although I do not think that buying back the bridge is feasible. The idea that one can simply nationalise something that has been provided by private capital is not going to work.
If one pays a toll, one should at least get the benefit of the toll itself. I regularly travel to Dunleer on the fantastic new Belfast to Dublin roadway. I am willing to pay the toll at Dunleer when I travel on the Belfast-Dublin road, which is an excellent new road and a credit to those who had the engineering and planning sense to put it in place, because I know I will skip the congestion at Drogheda and save 15 or 20 minutes. I do not shave any time of my journey when I use the M50. When the Dunleer bypass was being negotiated with National Toll Roads, a specific clause was inserted in the agreement that stated that in the event of a build-up of cars on that section of the route, the bridges will be automatically released and the cars can pass through. The same arrangement should apply to the toll plaza on the West Link. It should be possible to renegotiate the agreement with NTR in order to lift the toll barrier in the morning and between the peak hours of 4 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. or 7 p.m. to alleviate the existing difficulties for motorists on the West Link. If this arrangement is good enough in Dunleer, it is good enough for the West Link. This option is a feasible one, as opposed to the idea of simply buying out the toll. The lack of this provision was a major fault of the negotiations, not only those going back to 1987 but those that surrounded the last phase in 2000 to 2001.
Those of us who live on the M50 and local authority members who regularly point out these difficulties in South Dublin County Council and Fingal County Council witness the National Road Authority's illogical position on crash barriers. Although we see crashes on the M50 on a regular basis, we were told by the NRA that we could not have crash barriers. The councillors and the Minister for Transport both demanded crash barriers and now the NRA has suddenly done a U-turn and decided to introduce barriers. Politicians were calling for crash barriers ten years ago and were ignored by the NRA, which is another State quango with no democratic accountability. I ask the Government to renegotiate the agreement with NTR regarding peak times on the West Link toll plaza to enable frustrated motorists to get through the bottleneck on the M50.
This country will be known as the toll country. In ten, 15 or 20 years time, if a person travels from one end of the country to the other, he or she will have to go through several tolls. Senator Ross is correct in highlighting this development. If one reads the update from the NRA, a person leaving Galway in 20 years time will have to pay a toll around Galway city, a toll before he or she reaches Athlone, a toll between Athlone and Dublin, a toll if he or she travels on the M50 and a toll if he or she travels through the tunnel. A traveller will face three tolls on the M3 into Dublin before he or she reaches the M50. There will be a toll on the tunnel from Limerick city, a toll outside Portlaoise and an additional toll on the M50.
There will be tolls all over the country. As we can see, the cost of tolls is increasing daily. I am disappointed by the Minister's proposed solution to the problem. He says he is not happy with what the NRA has told him about the implementation of travelling through the tolls with the barriers up. He believes that easing the congestion on the M50 requires the implementation of the M50 upgrade project and, as part of that move, the opening of road tolling at the West Link. This entails 32 km of laneway on either side of the motorway and upgrading access on to the M50. The NRA informed us today that these measures cannot be accomplished separately. The Minister said this evening that he is not happy with the four-year period and believes that it can be done within a shorter timeframe. I can see from the prioritising of this that the people of Meath and Cavan will have to wait a further period because their counties will not be in phase one. Phase 1 of the project is between the N7 and the N4. There is a huge problem with three roundabouts on that access road on to the M50.
I was a member of the former Dublin County Council and was present in 1987 when that agreement was made. I knew that negotiations over the agreement had been ongoing since the 1970s through the late John Boland and subsequently Liam Kavanagh. I remember canvassing in 1987 when one would not see a car outside the door because unemployment was so high. We never thought that the country's economy would improve as dramatically as it did. There is no point in saying otherwise. In 1990, it was calculated that there were slightly over 18,000 cars on the roads, while in 2003, there were over 78,000 cars on the roads. That figure indicates how much catching up had to be done.
I travelled recently from Naas to Ashbourne and encountered no problems until I reached the Red Cow roundabout. Thirty minutes elapsed before I could even get off the slip road to get on to the M50 at that point. The same thing would have happened at the other exchange at the Navan road. We should start by addressing these problems, which have nothing to do with tolling. I would ask the NRA what work it has done with local authorities to try to alleviate traffic congestion at that point. I support public private partnerships and I would ask NTR and the NRA to work together to see how they can move forward and fast track the situation. I agree that upgrading the toll is a priority. However, the interim measures must also be addressed. We are locked into this agreement and reading the Minister for State's speech, I do not see any way out of it. Both NTR and the NRA have a responsibility to heed the congestion on the toll bridge and negotiate and I would like to find whether they are doing so. The Minister has referred to having public responsibility with regard to electronic voting and how he can fast track that system.
That was a slip of the tongue, I meant tolling. If we solved the problems at the couple of miles at both ends, we might stop the rat-running through residential areas, which I fought to get rid of when I was a county councillor. Everybody must be aware that this rat-running through residential areas is happening again. We all have a responsibility with regard to this issue, which I hope will be addressed.
An extensive programme of road and rail infrastructural improvement is taking place. We are still waiting for the completion of the M50 and the situation may be worse during periods of congestion, but this is not true of off-peak times when the situation is much better.
Urban tolls in the sense of physical barriers are not desirable in general. It was not for nothing that people rid themselves of tolls in the 18th century as an obstruction to the spirit of free trade and movement. On the other hand, if one could do this electronically, then much of the objections would vanish.
It has been well explained that the West Link toll bridge was built at a time when Ireland was not well off and did not have many resources. I am uncertain as to whether Senator Brian Hayes's comparison between Dún Laoghaire and the West Link is valid. Once one passes through the toll bridge near the River Boyne there should be no further blockages. However, if one were to raise the barriers there would be a blockage just a short way up the road. This is why there is no good case for buying it out as congestion would only be shifted slightly.
The members of the Government agree that public transport is the main solution as it provides choice and more capacity for rail park and ride. In his contribution the Minister cited the Luas as a brilliant success. RAIL magazine carried out a study of seven light rail schemes in the UK. This study found that these schemes meet their objectives for usage, urban regeneration and switching passengers from road to rail, that light rail is a more effective alternative to buses when passenger numbers are high, and has become an important contributor to regeneration. Transport economists who hate rail should take note of this study.
I hope that the loosening of the Stability and Growth Pact will provide us with more resources to fast-track some of our infrastructural investments.
For 14 years when I worked on the East Wall Road I used the East Link Bridge as many as four times per day and found it to be tremendously efficient. I used the M50 five or six times per week for my business in Dublin Airport and I welcome this discussion as a supporter of the motorway. The M50 is value for money and I am happy to pay the increased price because I cannot stand traffic congestion.
The Government receives one euro out of every €1.80 raised. It is a cash cow for the Government. However, as I have stated before, the main problem is congestion at the exits. I live at the Dundrum end of the M50 and have no problems exiting but people who must exit for Blanchardstown, Lucan or elsewhere experience horrific congestion. I suggest that NTR encourages the sale and use of Eazy Pass whereby one can zip through when one uses the pass. I am happy to pay the toll as I cannot stand being stuck in traffic. The Eazy Pass system is very efficient.
It is odd that any roads around a city or town are tolled. If one examines the international situation, the main reason to have roads around a city or town is to avoid people travelling through them. If there is a toll in place it discourages those people from going around the town.
I am glad that Senator White has had suchpleasant experiences with the West Link toll bridge as I have found it to be incredibly slow. A friend of mine who is good with logistics and must frequently travel to the airport has said it is much quicker to avoid the M50 and to stay on the west side of the city through Phibsborough, Glasnevin and Ballymun until he reaches his destination.
One can visit Florence in Italy, for example, where there is a great deal of traffic congestion but no tolls in sight. It is the same around Verona and Milan in the north of Italy. There are tolls on long stretches of road but not on short ones.
Senator Brian Hayes's suggestion concerning lifting the barriers when there is congestion is a good one. I am certain this could help in improving the situation until the construction work has been completed if NTR was to examine it. The East Link bridge has been a great success. I use it frequently and do not quibble about its price, but the confusion and congestion on the West Link toll bridge is a problem.
Senator Ormonde made a good point when speaking of the Red Cow roundabout, which is referred to as the "Mad Cow roundabout" by many people. The Luas has not made the situation worse. It is a great success but the situation there——
I thank the Senators for their helpful and provocative contributions to this excellent debate. They have given everyone much food for thought through this valuable exercise.
My view is simple. We face what Mr. Ted Heath called the "unacceptable face of capitalism". This is not a willing buyer and a willing seller negotiating a deal in any sense of the word. This is an imposition on ordinary people that they cannot do anything about due to the monopolistic nature of the contract. It is unacceptable. This particular charge and its nature is not affecting just the ordinary people, but the good people of the Irish Road Haulage Association. These are people who are charged enormous sums of money for going about their business and boosting the Celtic economy. I acknowledge the financial and moral support given to the campaign to open the toll bridges by the group I formed. Its members are the vanguard of the Celtic tiger but are being penalised.
Let us call this what it is. It is not enterprise and it is unacceptable. It is not the Celtic tiger but a monopoly that damages the economy and the people. It must be stopped. Senator Brian Hayes has imagination. I grew tired of listening to the Government saying, "God help us, we cannot do anything about it" or "Awful pity this, but they have us over a barrel and we must accept it". This is complete nonsense. There are all sorts of imaginative proposals that can be tabled and examined such as that proposed by Senator Brian Hayes.
Why will we not examine the possibility of penalising NTR in another sphere? There are many fiscal measures that can be taken. For instance, we could examine the buy-out proposal. Everyone claims it is too expensive to do but they never quote a price. We could offer NTR something else as it is a very fine company in many respects. It does not deal with tolls alone and changed its name from National Toll Roads to NTR to disguise its origins, as its tolling element is unpopular. It deals with waste very well and also deals with broadband and Airtricity. Do not tell me the State can only offer NTR cash. Why can someone in the Department not show some imagination and tell NTR that the State cannot give it €400 million or €500 million but an option on Aer Lingus, Coillte or other semi-State bodies?
I spoke to someone who uses it daily and has more experience of it than Senator White. Let us get real about this.
What has emerged from the Government side of the House are obfuscation, excuses and difficulties. I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Callely, because when the price increase was announced, he said it was not acceptable. He still believes that, is that correct?
The Minister does not have a vote and thank God, from his own point of view, because he would lose the party whip if he had. We have had some encouragement from the Minister today. He did not rule out the buy out. Those Senators on the other side of the House who jumped the gun by ruling it out should be careful. The buy out——
The buy out could take several forms. The Minister did not rule it out. What is more, those Senators who were not at the transport committee meeting today would not realise that the NRA representatives made it quite clear, through body language, that the buy out is on the table.
The other matter I want to raise is the dispute about technology. The NRA said today that barrier free tolling could not be introduced until 2008 at the earliest, if not 2009. The Minister has directly contradicted that and said it is not acceptable. I side with the Minister on this and commend the motion.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Mary White)
Against the motion: 16 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Joe McHugh, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Feargal Quinn, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry, Joanna Tuffy)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators O'Toole and Ross.
Amendment declared carried.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Mary White)
Against the motion: 16 (Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Joe McHugh, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Feargal Quinn, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry, Joanna Tuffy)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators O'Toole and Ross.
Question declared carried.