Wednesday, 8 February 2006
Road Network: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann:
—condemns the Government for its failure to provide any solution to the appalling problem of congestion on the M50, until 2008 at the earliest;
—expresses its concern in relation to the Government's proposal to move to barrier-free tolling on the M50 by way of the introduction of multipoint tolling at various sections through its length;
—notes the Government's failure to carry out a proper analysis of traffic management needs and future demand on the M50, prior to its announcement to expand tolling on this route;
—further notes that the opening of the port tunnel will add thousands of additional vehicles to the M50;
—condemns the current Government for its failure, since first taking office in 1997, to tackle congestion on the M50; and
—expresses its deep concern with the inequitable roll-out of tolling nationally, which will penalise motorists by forcing them to pay several tolls on each journey, as will be the case on the Galway to Dublin route.
I welcome the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, to the House and the decision to debate this very important motion. There is no doubt that this issue is of national concern. The current situation on the M50 affects a vast number of motorists who commute to our capital city every day. However, it also places a massive strain on the development of our business community, which pays expensive tolls but whose members sit in traffic queues for hours.
Congestion on the M50 is worsening, a situation this Government has allowed to develop through its incompetent and negligent handling of the issue. This situation has been bubbling over since the mid-1990s but the Minister for Transport has stalled repeatedly. He has done nothing to prevent this mess from developing. Last week's meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts highlighted starkly the unforgivable mistakes made in respect of the M50 and the West Link toll bridge. This debacle goes back as far as 1987 when the Fianna Fáil-led Government of the day signed a bad deal with National Toll Roads, NTR, which is the operator of the West Link toll bridge.
This deal was politically naive and short-sighted. It effectively gave NTR a licence to print money, an opportunity it has exploited to the maximum degree possible. It now appears that the company will receive a further financial windfall of over €1 billion from hard-pressed taxpayers before this sorry fiasco draws to a close. No one disputes the fact that the 1987 deal with NTR was a bad one but we must move on from there.
However, this Government appears set to introduce an equally poor tolling arrangement. NTR has exploited Irish motorists by squeezing every penny out of them for almost 20 years and the Government is setting itself up to do the same thing in a more exaggerated and punishing manner. It is disgraceful that the Government should attempt to do so. The Minister announced last week that the Government was preparing to buy out NTR and its contracts to provide tolling facilities on the M50. This appeared to be good news and a sign that hard-pressed motorists would finally receive some relief.
However, like so many of this Government's initiatives, the devil is in the details, which are shocking. The Government now proposes to abolish tolls imposed by NTR and introduce a more expensive system of tolling. Under this proposal, we will move away from single-point tolling on the West Link toll bridge to multipoint tolling along the full length of the M50. No motorist using this route will escape the toll and it is likely that the cost of the toll will increase.
Motorists using the M50 thought matters could not get any worse but they have. Matters have worsened considerably. How can the Government stand over this crazy policy? Motorists already pay through the nose through taxation, vehicle registration tax and rising fuel costs. Where is the justice in all of this? The Government's proposal amounts to double taxation and offers nothing to hard-pressed motorists. They have no guarantee that congestion on the M50 will ease. NTR has stated that even when the M50 upgrade is completed, congestion will not ease.
A ludicrous situation now prevails whereby the Government is effectively attempting to tax motorists off the road. This may be a laudable aim in terms of reducing environmental pollution and dealing with our shortage of road space but the Government must be realistic. Motorists use their cars, particularly for travelling to work, because there is no alternative. The Government has failed to put in place the public transport alternatives that are needed to allow people to leave their cars at home. This new toll amounts to a tax on work and putting the horse before the cart because it is being introduced in the absence of any comprehensive public transport system in our capital city and throughout the regions.
If the Minister was serious about persuading people to leave their cars at home and stay off routes like the M50, he would have delivered on his transport commitments a long time ago. These commitments have been promised since this tired and jaded Government took office nine years ago. The Government's fatigue is obvious to all. Where are the 180 additional buses which were promised for Dublin Bus, which intended to expand its network across the city? The Minister is awaiting another study on this issue but he does not need one. Instead, we see bus lanes lying empty because there are no buses to use them. Where is the metro, which was promised in the programme for Government? It was meant to run from Dublin Airport to Dublin city from 2007 but is now a distant dream. The list goes on.
Instead, Transport 21 has been produced. This is a pipe dream containing policy proposals which were promised years ago but which this Government has consistently failed to deliver. My concern is that Transport 21 will end up gathering dust, like so many other strategies announced by the Government, and become a distant memory in the Government's mind.
We now witness an incredible situation whereby the Government will be forced to pay over €1 billion to NTR to compensate it for the move to electronic tolling. In addition, the M50 upgrade will cost another €1 billion. This is a considerable amount of money, which must be paid by taxpayers. The Taoiseach may throw his hands up in despair and say that a deal is a deal and that there is nothing the Government can do other than pay up and shut up in respect of compensation for NTR.
My colleague, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, has highlighted the fact that compensation for NTR is not totally clear-cut. A concise reading of the contract signed in 1987 and again in 2001 reveals that NTR has a duty of care in respect of its management of the West Link toll bridge which it is not living up to. There is no doubt that the barriers at the West Link toll bridge contribute to congestion on the M50 yet the company has been slow to move to electronic tolling, which could have alleviated delays. The breach of this clause of its contract could leave NTR liable to pay compensation to the State. Neither the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, nor the National Roads Authority appear willing to pursue this avenue. It is disgraceful that they are willing to roll over and meekly pay a massive amount of compensation to the tune of €1 billion to National Toll Roads. This should be reconsidered.
Last week's announcement by the Minister regarding the tolling of the M50 was shambolic to say the least, as well as utterly confusing. The Minister announced that motorists on the M50 will have to move to barrier-free multipoint tolling along its length. However, he was unable to provide any finer detail on the matter. This was a result of the Minister jumping ahead and announcing something he had failed to work out himself, as is usually the case with him. When the Taoiseach moved to intervene and put out the fire of condemnation which met the announcement, he confirmed what we had all suspected, namely, that the Minister did not have any comprehensive proposals.
The Taoiseach appeared on one side to promise motorists that tolls would be gone by the year 2008, or even before that. There were no guarantees, however. With regard to the future of the M50 and the involvement of National Toll Roads, it has been confirmed that the matter will get much worse over the coming years. National Toll Roads has confirmed that it expects thousands of extra heavy goods vehicles to spill on to the M50 once the Dublin Port tunnel opens later this year. The year 2008 is no longer the crisis year for motorists stuck in traffic, as it will happen much sooner, when the port tunnel opens. The opening of the port tunnel, in addition to the M50 upgrade works over the next five years that will turn the motorway into a construction site, will mean the daily misery endured by motorists will get much worse.
The most disturbing of last week's revelations on the M50 issue is that the National Roads Authority has not been in touch with National Toll Roads to discuss how both are going to deal with the impact of increased traffic passing through the West Link bridge and along the M50. There has been no communication, no strategy and no plan. No wonder the public has lost all confidence in the Minister for Transport. He is offering no worthwhile solutions on the matter.
In the short term, even before the proposed State buy-out of the West Link bridge in 2008, we need to make changes on the M50 to ensure a greater flow of traffic. Fine Gael proposes that in light of the exceptional return NTR has made on this public infrastructure investment, the Government should request a number of concessions from the company to ease the burden of cost on the drivers using the bridge. These include the following: freezing the toll charges at the 2004 level; making NTR fund the introduction of electronic tolling technology and for it to be in place by 2008; and the opening up of the West Link bridge at exceptionally busy periods to allow a freer flow of traffic. The number and duration of these free-flow periods could be considered in consultation with the DTO, the AA and the local authorities involved.
The West Link bridge user is currently the only interested party not benefiting from the arrangements in place. National Toll Roads is reaping massive profits, the Government is taking in €23 million per year in fees, taxes and rates but the ordinary private or commercial driver is being hit by a double blow of increasing tolls and delays at peak times.
It is time for the Minister for Transport to reconsider the Government's general policy on tolling throughout Ireland. There are currently four toll roads and it is proposed to toll another five routes throughout the country. I strongly question the credibility of this strategy. By opting for private sector involvement in our roads building programme, are we setting up private operators to again collect buckets of cash from motorists?
The rationale for private sector involvement was perhaps once viable because we did not have the capital finances as a State to bankroll such costly projects. However, times have moved on and we now live in a wealthy State. Last year the budget surplus was €2.5 billion. Surely some of this could have been invested in a road building programme. I am concerned that by proceeding down the current route we are setting ourselves up for costly and rising tolls well into the future. We do not want a scenario mirroring the M50 to emerge.
The motion also raises the question of equity.
It cites the example of a motorist driving from Galway to Dublin. If the current tolling proposals proceed, motorists may have to pass between three and four tolls before reaching their final destination. It is too much to ask of any motorist, who is already contributing heavily to the Government through motor tax and VRT. It will cripple business and hamper the growth of businesses in the regions. The policy of tolling bypasses such as the Fermoy bypass, soon to open in County Cork, is equally questionable.
I second the motion put forward by my colleague, Senator Paddy Burke, and others. We have chosen to use Private Members' time tonight to debate this very important issue, which has ramifications not just for Dublin city and the surrounding region, but also for the country, as the Senator indicated at the end of his contribution. I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for participating in the debate.
The Minister is in the eye of the storm at the moment, a storm of his making and choosing. He was unceremoniously slapped down by the Taoiseach in the other House last week, and he should reflect on what has happened over the past fortnight. Even if he had nothing to say when he appeared on RTÉ to tell us the great news approximately two weeks ago, he should have at least stated that a comprehensive study is going ahead. That is reflected in the Government amendment tonight. It states that Seanad Éireann "welcomes the comprehensive traffic study on the M50 which the NRA will now carry out". That is great. It also states that Seanad Éireann "notes that following the completion of the study, the NRA will submit specific proposals for the free-flow tolling of the M50 with approval from the Government". That is also great.
This is what the Government has to offer us after nine years in office. I heard the Minister's musing on the Pat Kenny radio show this morning. One would think he was not part of the Government or an operation that was in place for the past nine years knowing that the crisis was building up year on year for the last six or seven years. The Government cannot offer us a solution until 2008, and in the meantime there will be another round of fascinating and comprehensive reports considering the crisis that is on the M50 on a daily basis. The problem is of the Minister's making, and the reason he was diminished by the Taoiseach's remarks in the other House is because he popped up making comments that were clearly ill-thought out, which did not have the support of his own party and which he has been trying to elude since.
Senator Paddy Burke referred to two important issues which I wish to hear the Minister comment on tonight. One relates to contracts. There was a contract in 1987, but there was also a contract in 2001. It is clear there is a contractual obligation on the service provider, which is NTR, as my colleagues in the other House stated. This obligation was entered into in 1987 and confirmed in 2001, and it requires NTR to provide facilities "which are adequate, having regard to the volume of traffic using the toll road".
The Minister has stated his hands are tied and he cannot act to enforce this specific standard. He has never tried, and he has not once taken legal proceedings against NTR. Last year he had the audacity to increase the toll charge by approximately 15% because the company had asked him to. It is a bit rich for the Minister now to present himself as the champion of the Irish motorist and the person who will now solve the problem. He has never once attempted to take the NTR to task using the legal options that were available from 1987 and 2001. He claims that the obligations under the PPP contract are much more accurate and advanced than in the previous contract.
I am also interested to hear the Minister's reply to the issue raised by Senator Burke. NTR conceded to the Committee of Public Accounts last week that the NRA had had no discussions with it on how best to handle the opening of the Dublin Port tunnel.
If it is rubbish the Minister will put it on the record of the House rather than muttering from the other side. If it is true it amounts to another breach of faith on the part of NTR, as well as another way in which the Minister failed to act on information when it first came to hand.
The situation in 12 months' time will certainly be much worse than now. There will be at least another 10,000 cars on the M50 and, as Senator Burke said, the Dublin Port tunnel will spew out 2,500 to 3,000 articulated lorries onto the M50 on a daily basis. However, the Government tells us the solution to this problem will emerge in 2008. The constituents I represent want to know what will happen today.
Some solutions can be advanced. The Minister has never once attempted to negotiate with NTR to take away the barriers at peak times, in line with an amendment on the Order Paper to which Senator Ross and Senator O'Toole referred. Never once has he demanded that the company remove the barrier at peak times in the morning and evening, even for one week. I suggested to the Minister more than five months ago, when the House last debated the issue, that the service provider should be obliged to raise the barriers when a substantial queue built up at the toll plaza so that motorists could immediately flow through. There are no contraflows on the most problematic junctions, between the N7 and the N4. Gardaí could be deployed at certain junctions in the morning to create two lanes onto the M50 as well as two lanes leading off in the evening.
These measures could make some difference now, unlike his actual proposal. The Minister's big idea is for the people who live in west and south-west Dublin, of which I am one, and along the entire fringe of the M50, to buy out the National Toll Roads contract for the toll plaza. He is going back to the future. When the initial proposal was made to Dublin County Council over 20 years ago it was for gantries onto the M50 and there were protests in Clondalkin, Tallaght and Blanchardstown because people realised they would be taxed every time they went onto the M50, thus subsidising the buyout of the horrendous deal entered into by his party on two occasions, in 1987 and 2001. That will not be allowed to happen because people will not accept it and will stand up to it. He has created the problem and it is futile to blame other people.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
—welcomes the Government's commitment to, and the increased investment in, the upgrade of the transport infrastructure in the greater Dublin area;
—welcomes the Government's commitment to the upgrade of the M50 including the installation of barrier-free tolling and notes that work will commence shortly on phase 1 of the upgrade;
—notes the decision of the NRA to terminate negotiations with NTR regarding the West Link;
—welcomes the comprehensive traffic study of the M50 which the NRA will now carry out;
—notes that, following completion of this study, the NRA will submit specific proposals for the free flow tolling of the M50 for approval by the Government;
—notes that the Department of Transport is engaged with all the stakeholders, including Dublin City Council, the National Roads Authority and the Dublin Port Company to ensure that these agencies develop a co-ordinated traffic management strategy for the opening of the Dublin Port tunnel; and
—welcomes the contribution that the toll-based roads PPP programme is making to the implementation of the national roads development programme including through the early delivery of vital road infrastructure.
I welcome the Minister to the House and the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I have only eight minutes but it would take considerably longer to refute some of the negativity and misrepresentation of the facts we have heard. We had a similar discussion here on 23 March 2005 on a motion tabled by Senator Ross. The big issue in the media and in the public mind at the time was the removal of the bottleneck at the West Link toll plaza because of the difficulties people experienced sitting for considerable time on the approaches to the bridges morning and evening. At no time during that debate did I hear anything about the cost of the toll. The problem, as perceived by me and by most people, was that people were paying for a poor service that was not in keeping with best practice and was downright inefficient.
There has been significant improvement since then. The Minister has held discussions that were difficult and protracted, for obvious reasons. A private operator has a contract and I differ from the other side on the origins of that. The decision has now been taken to remove the toll plaza. I am not happy that it will be 2008 — like most people I would like it to be sooner — but there are difficult issues that need to be resolved. Until this problem surfaced there was no problem with the principle of tolling on the bridge or the M50. I have heard suggestions for barrier-free tolling at multiple points but a review is ongoing and a decision must be made on how such money can be collected.
The debate has now changed. A solution has been found to the removal of the blockade at the bridge and the Minister has made the correct decision. The NRA had progressed as far as it could with its negotiations with NTR and he could not allow the negotiations to continue so pulled the plug in line with the clause in the contract.
I listened with interest to Senator Paddy Burke's revisionist view of how the contract with NTR came about. We only have to go back to 1987 because most of the negotiations took place between 1982 and 1987, involving the coalition Government at the time. I do not seek to apportion blame to the Government at the time or to the subsequent Government but we lived in a very different society and projections were that 25,000 vehicles would utilise that road in 2005. That has quadrupled, so that there were nearly 100,000 last year.
I could play politics and say the reason so many cars cross the West Link toll bridge in 2005 is that Fianna Fáil-led Governments since 1987 have changed the economic fortunes of this country. There would be a large element of truth in that——
——but I will not get into it. I will not swipe back with predictable negativity by suggesting it was a bad deal. It was a very good deal for the State at the time. The Minister might correct my figures but I understand the cost of €38 million amounted to approximately one third of what the country was spending at the time on its entire road programme. It is ridiculous to suggest this was a bad deal. In fact, for five or six years until 1995 it was a good deal. The numbers were short of the projections that NTR had made for 1991, 1992 and 1993 and the company was losing money and under financial pressure. Not until the economic policies of this and other Fianna Fáil-led Governments did the current situation arise. I do not suggest it was all our doing. International changes allowed us to reap the benefits of our policies but it is wrong to suggest this was a cosy deal whereby Fianna Fáil looked after NTR because the facts belie that suggestion. A legally binding agreement was negotiated by all the parties at the time and it provided very good value for money for the State.
It is easy to look back and, with the wisdom of hindsight, suggest it should have been done differently. Now it will be done differently and the approach the Minister is taking is correct for that purpose. Local authorities were in such peril that they had to turn off street lights. In many areas, it seemed that lights had blown but that represented a decision by councils to remove every second bulb.
Before suggesting that a bad deal was made, we should remember the levels of emigration then and that the country was on its knees. The then Fianna Fáil Government should be proud of its actions. I grant the Opposition some credit for commencing the changes, although it is a pity it was not around to drive them through.
There is talk that the Minister should take NTR to court. In the context of the heavy involvement of multinational companies in this economy, the State would do great damage to its credibility on the international stage, at a time when it is trying to encourage public private partnerships, if it was to renege on an agreement in order to pull a private company through the courts for political purposes. I do not want the Minister to take that step. A contract has been agreed to and NTR has to be compensated. Good luck to the company because it got it right. The reality is that the money collected through tolls will be required to pay compensation and to ensure that the M50 is upgraded. We have accepted tolling in other parts of the country and the people of the west and south should not pay for Dublin's difficulties.
I wish to address some of the issues raised by Senator Dooley. I am aware he finds himself in a difficult position this evening, as he often does. When he is in a corner, he comes out to bat for the Government like the late Brian Lenihan used to do.
He leaves us with the feeling that he has done his best but is not really convinced of his arguments. In one of his first sentences, which was incredible enough to beggar belief, he said that a solution had been found. He went on to say that we discussed this very matter about this time last year. Given that we urged exactly the same solution when we last discussed it, it is nonsense to claim now that a solution has been found. A year later, we have in fact fallen two years back because the Minister, instead of taking immediate action upon coming to power, decided it was time for talks between the National Roads Authority, over which he exerts control, and National Toll Roads. The talks continued for months and, as anybody could have predicted, ended in deadlock. They were due to finish by the end of August but, because NTR is good at running rings around Ministers and the Government, they concluded ten days ago after they came to a deadlock, with NRA breaking off from them.
I do not blame NTR for dragging its feet in these talks for as long as possible while at the same time minting money. Any company with similar shareholders would probably regard it a duty to do so. However, it made a monkey of the Minister by continuing the talks for almost one year without allowing any achievements to be made. Meanwhile, the poor unfortunate commuters, who sat along the M50 during that period, continue to wait.
The Minister, in a premature fiasco of a statement, announced that the plaza on the West Link toll bridge would be opened. Apparently, we were all meant to applaud but why should we do so? It will only be opened in two years' time. The significance of the date is that it will be on the other side of an election and the Government hopes, by reassuring people at the hustings this time next year that the plaza will be gone fairly soon, it will be able once again to make monkeys of the electorate. What will happen during those two years? Everybody knows that NTR will continue to milk motorists and the M50 will get worse. The Government will merely whisper sweet nothings in the ears of big business and say, "Do not worry, it will be all over in two years".
It is not satisfactory because, as Senator Brian Hayes noted, more could have been done much earlier. This problem did not arise suddenly this year but has been building up over a long time and is the result of the original deal, a matter remarked upon today by a number of speakers. We should acknowledge Senator Dooley's points that the Roche family took a risk at the time and that nobody could have imagined the immeasurable rewards that would be reaped. However, he should not try to tell me that the original deal was good for the Government. Regardless of whether these people deserve their financial rewards — I believe they do not — the negotiators should not have agreed to give them a monopoly over that stretch of road. As a result, the suggestions that a second bridge can be built are null and void because it is legally binding.
This deal sets standards which would not be acceptable today in any toll company and, as we heard from the NRA last week, it also sets down certain legally unenforceable terms. It was flawed and careless and it granted a monopoly. Let us stop saying the Government negotiated a good deal because the principles, standards and traffic forecasts were all wrong, although it should not necessarily be blamed for the latter and I concur with the Senator on the economy. The flaws in the deal were so fundamental that they should have been foreseen and prevented.
A lot of passing the parcel has been conducted by people trying to disown the deal by blaming either the then coalition Government or Fianna Fáil. We should determine who signed the agreement because people who sign deals should take responsibility for them. It was signed by George Redmond for Dublin County Council and by Pádraig Flynn for his party.
It is all very well to say that he was only one week in office, as I heard recently on a radio programme, but that is not true because he had served for at least six months. The deal was signed in October but he had been in office since the previous March.
Did the then Minister sign this deal without knowing its contents or giving it due consideration?
He must take responsibility and the Government of the day should say it signed the deal but got it wrong.
This is not just about money, it is a human problem. I am sick and tired of people talking about how much it will cost to do A or B, with projections on traffic volumes and the economy. This is a problem which must be resolved and there are two ways of doing so. The first is a temporary way — let us see who is responsible for the congestion by opening the gates now. The Minister can do that and, second, he can set the toll at zero today. There is no need for a two year delay.
We are back in this House tonight to discuss the vexed question of the M50. While I do not want to give a history lesson to some in this Chamber, it is important to note that when the M50 toll contract was signed, there was no monopoly because an outer ring road was planned for approximately two miles from the motorway. As people drive along the N7 today, they will see a large sign at Rathcoole referring to an outer ring road. That was the plan at the time but the county council in Dublin was split into three in 1994 and when the development plan for Fingal County Council was completed in 1999, the council voted, by 23 to one, to delete the bridge coming across from Woodies in Lucan. That is why there is an interchange at Woodies on the N4. It was designed to join up with the N7. That work has largely been done by South Dublin County Council and that council, since 1999, has merrily gone on planning its road infrastructure as it had been planned in the 1980s. I was the only councillor who said there should be a second crossing at that point but it was deleted from the plan by the council, with county management approval and against the wishes of the then Dublin Transportation Office. That decision gave a monopoly to the M50.
Figures were produced and reports published when the upgrade of the M50 was first discussed at Fingal County Council five years ago. Councillors at that time were told that some 14,000 motorists — and the figure is probably 20,000 today — were travelling from Blanchardstown to Lucan, via the M50, every day. These motorists were causing enormous congestion on the N3 roundabout and more important, they were being forced to pay NTR for the privilege of crossing to Lucan, as their only alternative was to go through Chapelizod or Lucan village. That scenario was voted for by councillors, some of whom now sit in this Chamber. The point is that there was no monopoly initially, but one was given to NTR by the decisions I have just outlined.
Nothing that I have heard today offers any solution in the next two years. However, a solution must be found for the short term, particularly in light of the opening of the port tunnel. When the original toll bridge was in place, up until 2001, there were four lanes on it, with a dual carriageway running in each direction across the Liffey. Mysteriously, when NTR built the second bridge, it reduced the four lanes to three, which is a complete waste of infrastructure. My solution, which would cost nothing in terms of additional infrastructure, is the reintroduction of four lanes on each section of the bridge. The most westerly northbound lane could be given over entirely to traffic coming from the Lucan and Kildare areas, given that it is estimated that between 20% and 25% of traffic travelling across the bridge comes from the N4. At present, if a motorist coming in from the N4 in the morning wishes to use Eazy Pass, he or she must cross the three lanes of the M50, slowing up all of the traffic. There should be a dedicated lane on the inside for such traffic, which would remove the need for motorists to weave and merge on the N4 interchange. This would cost nothing to implement.
As one drives along the N7 at present, beyond Naas, the traffic veers out into the northern lane of the N7 and a contra-flow lane operates for a section of the road for about a mile. I travelled that route last Sunday and asked myself why that could not be done on the bridge. Last September I proposed this on behalf of my party and I still do not understand why it cannot be done. I do not believe that anyone has a monopoly on wisdom on this issue and I have certainly heard little wisdom tonight.
I heard the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Rabbitte, say in the Dáil last week that he would consider moving the toll plaza back towards Castleknock. That was part of the original NRA proposal for the upgrading of the M50 but it was lashed and removed from the plan because the plaza would be on top of people's houses, with attendant problems of lighting, pollution and so forth. If that is the Labour Party's solution, I am sure Deputy Burton will be very happy to inform the residents of that area.
My suggestion is that, with no extra cost by way of infrastructure, we could have one-way tolling on the bridge and nobody would lose. When the original bridge was in place, motorists had to travel over the single bridge and weave through traffic to go through the southern or northern toll. In two years' time, when we start upgrading the M50, that will have to happen again. There will be tar barrels, cones and bollards along the M50 and, if it is going to be like the Naas road was, we must have controlled management of the motorway.
The Minister should consider reversing six of the southbound lanes at the toll bridge, so that rather than having seven southbound and seven northbound lanes, we could have 13 northbound lanes, adding tremendously to the capacity on the M50. He could allow for free tolls for motorists heading south, reduce the northbound toll from €3.60 to €3.00, which is easier to collect and force NTR to advertise Eazy Pass packages. Proper demand management measures must be put in place. Users of the Luas pay in advance. In the same vein, there should be more use of Eazy Pass. People should be forced to use Eazy Pass and told they will have to queue if they do not do so. Equally, they should be told if they do use it, they will have an easier passage through the toll plaza. Demand management measures are essential.
The capacity of the M50 can be increased by introducing four lanes across both bridges, as was the case in the past and I urge the Minister to give consideration to that option.
I wish to share my time with Senator Tuffy. A statement of principle is probably a good place to start. I do not have a problem, in principle, with tolls. Sometimes the impression is given that all Government politicians are in favour of tolls, so long as they are not in their own areas, and all Opposition politicians are against them. I do not have problem in principle with tolls but they must be reasonable. They cannot be put on one motorway and not on another and they should only apply to new roads. There will not be general public acceptance of the need to pay for roads if they are not new. However, if the road is new and the toll is proportionate and reasonably priced then I do not have a difficulty with the users of a stretch of motorway bearing some of the cost, provided the public-private partnership arrangements are appropriate.
We have had various types of public-private partnership arrangements over the years and I hope to goodness we have got them right by now. I have certainly been hearing more positive news on that issue in recent times than was the case a few years ago, but we have made some mistakes in this area, as have other countries, it must be said. Either way, I do not have a difficulty, in principle, with tolls.
The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General to the Committee of Public Accounts last week stated that the memo to Government in 1984, before the first bridge was built, pointed out that tolling ring-roads was not customary in Europe. There was a good reason for that. We have heard the argument already so I will not rehash it, but if people are being tolled for a relatively short journey to work twice daily, it is different from tolling journeys between Dublin and other cities and we should not be doing it.
We must now find the most reasonable solution and I agree that we must move to barrier-free tolling. However, I do not understand why it must take until 2008 and why we must wait another year before we get the legislation to achieve that. I accept the principle that it must be done by electronic recognition of registration plates or an Eazy Pass system and that the notion of nationalising the 3 km of the M50 that we do not own is unrealistic because we should not visit that cost on the taxpayer. However, I am at a loss to understand why, given the reasonable degree of consensus, it has taken us so long to arrive at where we are now, a general acceptance in principle that we must do away with the barriers. That is all we have agreed so far, there is nothing beyond that. Surely we could have achieved more by now.
The HGV management plan published by Dublin City Council before Christmas acknowledged, as we all knew, that there is little point in putting in place a toll strategy on the Dublin Port tunnel which is intended to oblige HGVs to use it while charging them up to €7 a few kilometres up the M50. It is clear that if the HGV management plan for the port tunnel is to work, we must have in place a system where the barriers are raised but no serious talks are taking place with National Toll Roads. Given the need for a decision, the matter requires the intervention of the Minister as soon as possible.
I mentioned last week that the Minister made an announcement but we are yet to see the details of the proposal. If the Government does anything, however, it should scrutinise proposed expenditure in a way similar to what the Committee of Public Accounts does after the money is spent, where often it finds there are serious problems with the figures. There must be pre-evaluation because there is no point making the big announcement if the system to implement it is wrong. It is Labour Party policy to introduce a system to independently evaluate large-scale expenditure before the money is spent.
I live in mid-west Dublin, an area that includes Lucan and Clondalkin, and the Minister's plans will have an impact on us. If other tolls are introduced on the M50, what will happen on those roads that are not tolled? People will avoid the tolls, particularly because they have used the M50 in one direction where there is no toll. Those people will not accept the principle of having to pay a toll on an old road. They will avoid that road, with a resultant impact on roads in Lucan, Clondalkin and Tallaght.
The Minister appeared on "Today with Pat Kenny" this morning, saying that he would not introduce congestion charging until public transport options exist. If the Minister does anything for mid-west Dublin, he should give priority to the Kildare route project and give Dublin Bus the extra buses it needs for additional services and new routes.
Only yesterday I was talking to people who have been taking the bus for many years from Clondalkin to Peamount Hospital where they work. The people who got that bus are passed at their usual stop because the bus is full. When the issue is raised with Dublin Bus, the company states that it does not have the resources to put extra buses on the route and there is nothing it can do. Dublin Bus must be given the buses promised in the national development plan. While I would like to see Luas and metro arrive in Lucan, it is not even on the drawing board, while both Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann have concrete proposals and infrastructure for the Kildare route project that would benefit many people. It was supposed to be finished in 2005.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Contrary to Senator Ross's suggestion in an article in a Sunday newspaper, the Minister looks quite healthy for a someone who is supposedly a dead man walking. I congratulate him on the work he is doing in the Department of Transport.
Unfortunately there are no roads like the M50 in Cavan and I had to do some research. The only time I find myself on it, and it would be quite congested, would be going to the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis in Citywest, or visiting in-laws in Kilkenny or cousins in Tipperary.
We did not have to pull screens around at our Ard-Fheis to pretend there was a crowd.
The M50 upgrade will see the five kilometre section from the N7 to the N4 increase from four to six lanes, with free-flowing interchanges at the Red Cow, Liffey Valley and Ballymount roundabouts. Work will shortly commence and will be completed within two years. With the Naas Road widening project and the upgrade of the N2 and N3, this will deliver improvements for road users. The move from four to six lanes and the new interchanges will improve average peak hour speeds, reduce congestion on radial routes and improve traffic flow on the entire Dublin road network. Surely that is welcome news, particularly for those using the M50. Some people are concerned about delays while the work is carried out and it will be important to maintain traffic flow but that is the only concern I have heard.
Senator Morrissey informed me that National Toll Roads built 3.2 kilometres of the M50, including three other bridges apart from the West Link itself. While a Fianna Fáil Minister may have signed the contract, major projects of this nature are not put together in six months. I will take Senator Ross's advice that it is necessary to be factual about the contract. Although it was formally signed by Pádraig Flynn, a Minister in a subsequent Government, the contract was prepared by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government of the time. Senator Ross's former party cannot wash its hands of that fact.
Senator Bradford stated that Cavan people might not pay tolls. The people of Cavan would gladly pay tolls to travel to Dublin on the M3 if it was constructed. Part of the responsibility for delaying the road lies with some of the Opposition Senators who, shrouded in straitjackets of pomposity, pontificate to a Minister who is attempting to improve the conditions of the travelling public throughout the Twenty-six Counties. In this respect, I welcome Transport 21 but we will discuss that on another day. Members of the Opposition are assisting individuals who are taking court cases against the Government and NRA to prevent the M3 from being constructed. In doing so, they are delaying vital infrastructure for the people of counties Cavan, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Meath. The M3 is needed to allow the people of these counties to use the M50. The current road, the N3, is the artery we must travel to reach Dublin because we do not have any other infrastructure such as railways.
The opponents of the road can jump a DART train, Luas tram, bus or taxi and sit back in their cosy Georgian houses or seaside retreats in Bray, while the people of counties Cavan, Meath, Leitrim and Fermanagh use a dirt track to travel to the capital city and its ports and airport. That is the reality for the people of the north midlands and north west.
I congratulate the Minister and his officials on their decision to upgrade the M50. Let us cut out the nonsense and get the M3 constructed. The people of Cavan will be glad to pay any tolls charged to use the road because the time saved will save money, which we like to do.
The Senator may be called upon in the national interest. I have listened with interest to the debate. Senator Wilson referred to the Transport 21 plan, which the House has debated and to which I do not propose to revert. I trust that any Minister, regardless of the Department in which he or she serves, will want to do a good job and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, is attempting to establish a national transport system which will work. Transport and health are the two areas of Government policy in which considerable investment has been made without clear results. This is the reason the debate is necessary.
The Minister should listen carefully to Senators' comments, particularly the ideas Senators Morrissey and McDowell put forward from their respective local positions.
Prosperity and economic success have resulted in a significant increase in the number of cars on the roads. It is a matter of concern that the number of cars here per capita remains low when compared to other European Union member states. This means congestion problems will worsen as the number of cars on the roads increases in the next ten to 15 years.
Few of us would have expected traffic jams to supersede the weather as the main topic of conversation for many people. I recall that in the days before the introduction of Sky Sports, soccer fans had to listen to BBC Radio 2 on Saturdays. It was while listening to this station that I first heard traffic reports. I never expected we would ever have traffic jams here. Traffic congestion on our roads has become a crucial national issue, both from an economic perspective and in terms of the major social problems it causes. For this reason, it must be urgently addressed.
The statistics on the cost of the M50 to motorists and the significant sums being generated by road tolling oblige us to reflect on our approach to road tolls. We need a national debate on the issue. Like Senator McDowell, I do not have hard and fast views on whether tolls are a good or bad idea. Given the clear need to build more roads, the question is how they should be funded. In the mid to late 1980s no one foresaw how much money would be collected by National Toll Roads. The West Link, which cost €38 million to build, will have raised more than €1 billion by 2020. Perhaps we should have had greater vision at the time but no one envisaged that the bridge would generate this kind of money. It is important, therefore, that we now ask what is the best way forward.
The prospect of new tolls being introduced is a cause of major concern. Senator McDowell asked when I would raise the issue of the Fermoy bypass. The Minister will be aware of the position in Fermoy, a town in my former Dáil constituency. A road, which was originally designed as a bypass of the town, has become part of the much larger Cork to Dublin motorway. The decision to place toll booths just outside the town has caused considerable local unease because it will result in cars diverting into the town to avoid the toll plaza. The National Roads Authority has indicated that up to 40% of cars using the motorway will make a diversion, which would be a disappointing development. If this estimate reflects the future scale of the problem in Fermoy, it raises concerns about the scale of future problems in larger cities, particularly in the Dublin region if drivers are required to pay tolls at two or three points on the M50.
The tolling system needs to be examined. Contracts signed with National Toll Roads clearly cannot be cast aside and negotiations with the company will be necessary. The option of replacing toll charges with a levy on petrol and dieselmust be considered. The House has already debated shadow tolling, which involves removing barriers and billing drivers who pass a toll. An alternative to this approach would be to raise the necessary funding by other means. Although it is universally accepted that roads will not be built free of charge, the current system is unsustainable.
While, like Senator Wilson, I do not travel the M50 every day, the queues are of a scale that we cannot allow. We are beginning to appreciate the level of frustration and anger felt by motorists and we must respond to it. Although I wish I had the solution, I do not. What has happened over the past five or six years cannot be repeated. Since it is not sustainable to allow more and more traffic to build up at these tolling booths, new solutions are required. The idea that people who live in certain areas and who travel along the M50 might have to pay a number of tolls per day is not only politically unacceptable but wrong on every count.
As the Minister tries to proceed with the national transport plan and put in place a mechanism to spend the €34 billion, which is an enormous sum, we must ensure it is done in such a way that gives value for money and does not create these huge bottlenecks. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours but over the past five to ten years we have seen a system that does not work and urgently needs to be reviewed. The public representatives for the Dublin region understand better than I that the issue of traffic jams and transport management has become almost No. 1 on the political agenda, and consumers and constituents will demand a political response. The Minister must insist that the NRA urgently reviews the situation where planned bypasses end up with toll plazas. Being parochial again, this is an issue not just in Fermoy but in towns across the country.
I would like to share my time with Senator Kitt. I welcome the Minister and commend him for grasping the nettle of this awful problem of the M50 tolling and the traffic jams there every evening. I have listened to this evening's debate and I like it when the Opposition takes over because it has all the answers. It has fantastic questions and answers.
When I was a member of the former Dublin County Council from 1991 to 1993 and a Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition was in control, no budget was provided for the lighting of the M50 and the toll plaza. Nothing has been said about that. When the deal was negotiated we had high unemployment and it was a good deal at the time. If the Opposition had been in Government it would have done the same. Liam Kavanagh was the Minister preparing these plans originally from 1984 to 1986. The Opposition should not pretend they know all the answers or that if it had beenin Government this situation would not have arisen. Nobody could have known by how much traffic would increase between 1995 and today. Only now do we see that we should have done it much earlier and we have now tackled the problem.
It is important to get the M50 upgrade right. We all know mistakes can be made but we must get it right. The Minister is right to establish this study with the NRA before we can come to any arrangements. I welcome the fact that all the stakeholders are involved in this approach. It is important that we include the Department of Transport, Dublin City Council, the National Roads Authority and the Dublin Port Company to ensure that all the agencies develop a co-ordinated traffic plan. That is the only way we can move forward to get it right.
We are sorting out the problems with the Red Cow roundabout. The only way is to take it slowly. There is no quick answer. If there were, does the Opposition think the Government would not have moved like a shot on it? One cannot do it immediately. There are legally binding agreements. The decision to end the tolling and establish a traffic study is positive. The public welcomes it and accepts that the decisions must be taken slowly. This operation cannot be fast-tracked. The Minister must go about his business despite criticism. He is doing a good job and I wish him well.
I welcome the Minister, particularly what he has said in a definite statement that work will shortly commence on phase 1 of the M50 upgrade. I have known the Minister down the years and he has always given us dates when we have looked for infrastructure development. In developing the western rail corridor he gave dates when the railway would come to various parts of the west. He is doing the same regarding this upgrade.
I welcome the fact that there will be barrier-free tolling. I am not as familiar with the road as the Dublin Members. For me it is a handy way to get to Croke Park; thanks be to God Galway has been there either for hurling or football in the last few years, and hopefully it will be again. I am sure the Minister will use the same road in the future. The Minister's statement on the upgrade and barrier-free tolling is important.
The Fine Gael motion mentions the Galway to Dublin route and one would think from reading it that everybody sets out from Galway city to Dublin. That is not the case. Many of us live in east Galway. One would also think there is some compunction to use the toll road. While I welcome the new road from Kinnegad to Dublin, many bus operators use the old route because it suits passengers and they are free to do so.
Some enterprising people have put up signs advertising that one can have breakfast or lunchtoll free on the old road. While we have this excellent road, on which it is a joy to drive — and drive safely, an important issue — there is an option to travel on the old route. There is no place to stop for food on the road from Kinnegad and Dublin. I presume when the new road goes all the way to Galway there will be. That is an important side issue because people must take a break if they are driving a long way. It must be addressed.
The most important issue is that there is €34 billion for the transport plan. The Minister has ensured that much of that funding will go to the development of good, safe roads, has given dates for other development and has given assurances on what is happening on phase 1 of the M50 upgrade. I welcome what is happening on transport. As part of the Galway to Dublin route the Minister recently opened the Loughrea bypass, a stretch of road that had been planned for 30 years. People from the west, particularly from Galway city, can get to the midlands and Dublin by a quicker and safer route. Loughrea was choked due to serious traffic problems that went on for over 30 years. I welcome the announcement and hope this issue of the M50 and the other issues on the Galway to Dublin route will be resolved as soon as possible.
This issue has been around for quite a while and is a developing scandal. I am not interested in who is responsible and whether it was a Labour Party Minister who signed the agreement. We have a problematic situation and should address it. I raised this matter on 10 June 2003 as a result of an experience I had going through the toll bridge. At the time I said:
A recent journey took me across the West Link toll bridge. There are ten lanes through which vehicles may pass at the tollbooth. On the day in question, the first lane was closed, the next three were Eazy Pass only, no change was given at the next lane, the next two lanes were also Eazy Pass, there was a girl in the next lane putting money into a basket and the last lane had no markings. I went right across to the girl with the basket, but she would not give me any change. It may seem silly, but if every second person is giving 70 cent to National Toll Roads, it will make a huge amount of money. It has already swindled the people of Ireland by having its free run at the toll bridge extended. We should consider this matter.
I was not raising the parsimonious Protestant view that I was giving 70 cent to the owners of the toll bridge; I was also dealing with the question of safety. It was dreadful, the signage was bad and I needed to zigzag across several lanes to get to the badly-marked toll booth.
As far as I am concerned National Toll Roads is buccaneering at this stage. It is shameless. It knows it is squeezing the people and it is arrogant and unrepentant. The demeanour of its representatives before committees of the Oireachtas is appalling. They simply dismissed us. All the time we hear about €10 million here and €5 million there and what it could be used for in our hospitals. Has NTR no conscience? What about the application to which the taxpayers' money could be put if they did not have to waste all this money on these toll roads? The worst aspect seems to be the claim it is making that if the Government buys it out, under EU law it is still entitled to tender for the contract. We could buy it out, give it a present of hard cash and find it continuing to rob us. That is the unacceptable face of capitalism.
While I am not suggesting there are easy solutions, certain things could be done. For example, let us consider what was done in France. The national autoroute 6 going south from Paris has a large toll plaza for traffic in one direction and a few miles further down the road it has another plaza for traffic in the opposite direction. Why not use the existing West Link plaza for traffic in one direction and perhaps on the other side of the bridge have a plaza for traffic in the opposite direction, which would free up the entire thing?
I note the issue of the height of the bridge, which is so inane. If the bridge had been heightened to accommodate large trucks, it would have the option of banning them. Now we may have large trucks continuing to drive on the quays. I listened with great amusement to the announcement made jocularly on RTE the other day, which stated: "The Dublin Port tunnel was opened today at one end to let the water out".
I thank Senator Norris for giving me time to speak in this debate. We must make a clear distinction. It is one matter to build a motorway and announce well ahead of time that it will be tolled. It is understandable and I have no objection to it. However, it is a problem to build a motorway, have people build houses and come to live in the area and then to spring on them that the system will change and they will face different costs. I believe this is why people are up in arms over the proposal that has now been made.
There are two schools of thought as to whether we should have tolls. One states that the taxpayer, as we did for many years, should pay from a central purse for the cost of roads. The other states that, as with the polluter pays principle, those who use it should pay. I tend towards the second opinion. I believe it is right to have tolls. In my experience it is possible to change behaviour on the basis that people must pay, of which I am in favour. However, I have great reservations about the lack of imagination among those involved. One relates to the pricing, to which I will return, and the other is the collection. The Minister is right: with modern technology it is outrageous to think about the old-fashioned way in which we still collect tolls. I have seen the systems in operation in Singapore and other parts of the world and the Minister has spoken about them here. We must move in that direction as it does not make sense to do otherwise.
However, much greater lack of imagination applies to pricing. In almost every business of which I am aware, more frequent users who are better customers pay a lower charge and the occasional users who are poor customers pay a higher price. The Fine Gael motion refers to the journey from Dublin to Galway. Whatever about that journey, what is important is the person who uses the M50, 40 times a month getting to and from work. This is a much more important element and such motorists should pay a much lower rate than those people who only use the road occasionally coming up to watch Galway play in Croke Park, which is probably very seldom nowadays. Those taking shorter journeys should pay a higher price than those taking longer journeys. This would mean that a driver going the whole way from Dublin to Galway would pay a lower rate — although not necessarily a lower toll — than a driver only going part of the way. On the Continent and elsewhere such a system applies.
Heavy goods vehicles are price sensitive and I still see large trucks, some driver-owned and some owned by the larger companies, which avoid the expense of toll roads in order to travel on roads not built for them and through villages and towns not built for them. This has many implications. It is a much more expensive way to travel. It is also much more dangerous and is damaging to the roads.
The Minister should consider banning or providing incentives to prevent heavy goods vehicles from using those roads that are not suitable for them when a toll road is available to them. This could be done either by applying a ban or by pricing in a manner that makes it much more acceptable for them to use toll roads. The reasons do not just relate to safety and damage to the roads. They include the cost to the economy as a whole. It costs far more to use lower grade roads to transport goods.
I will leave those thoughts with the Minister. The issue needs careful consideration. I am not proposing the answer. I do not know whether heavy goods vehicles should be banned or whether they should be encouraged by pricing to ensure they use the toll roads and main roads built for them and not other roads that were not built for them.
As I came over to this debate in Seanad Éireann, I wondered whether I had missed some fact, issue of substance or policy idea that might not have been considered. As colleagues know, I always enjoy the debate in this House, which is always of a very high quality. I was particularly concerned that those who have been to the fore in discussing this issue, either orally or in written form, would bring something substantive to the debate. I need not have had any such concerns.
I thank those on both sides of the House who have dealt with the facts and proposed ideas constructively, asked questions quite legitimately and have sought answers. I have always been comfortable and happy to be in that space regardless of how difficult the questions are or how big the challenge is. I am driven by making decisions and finding solutions.
I am glad of the opportunity which this motion provides to set out the position regarding the upgrade of the M50 and the broader programme of investment in transport infrastructure in the greater Dublin area. I hope that by the time I am finished many of the questions will have been answered. The existing M50 ring road is the result of more than three decades of planning and construction during a period in which Dublin and the country as a whole have experienced significant economic development and change. As a result the Dublin road network has experienced massive traffic growth and the M50 is now the busiest section of road in Ireland. The increase in our car ownership rates and changes in travel patterns have resulted in major congestion occurring during peak times on many parts of the Dublin road network, including the M50.
The upgrade scheme will have significant benefits for road users as it will expand the capacity of the M50 to deal with 50% more traffic than at present, improve average peak hour speeds, reduce traffic congestion on the radial routes and improve traffic flow on the whole of the Dublin road network. With the full upgrade of the M50, average traffic speeds on the wider Dublin road network are predicted to increase by up to 9% in the morning peak hour and up to 12% in the off-peak periods over the first year of operation in 2010 compared with a situation where the scheme is not upgraded. The opening last year of the final link of the M50 south-eastern motorway delivered major benefits, and we will shortly see the opening to traffic of the Dublin Port tunnel.
The completion of these projects, along with the Naas Road widening and the upgrade projects on the N2, will deliver important improvements to the capital's road network and is further evidence of what the Government is working to achieve, namely, a high-quality network providing reduced journey times and greater journey time certainty to support development and underpin competitiveness. This development in the road network will be complemented by significant development in public transport to which I will refer later.
The M50 upgrade scheme is being planned in two phases and involves the widening of approximately 31 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 and the upgrade of ten junctions along this length. Phase 1 of the scheme, the contract for which was recently signed and which will commence construction in a matter of weeks, is being delivered by means of a design and build contract and involves the widening of the carriageway to three lanes between the Red Cow, N7, the Galway road, N4 roundabouts and the upgrading of the interchanges. This phase is to be completed by mid-2008 and is being funded by the Exchequer. Phase 2 is being procured as a PPP contract and involves the widening of the remainder to three lanes and the upgrade of other interchanges. I understand that the contract for this phase is expected to be awarded in April 2007 with construction to be completed in 2010.
A crucial element of the M50 upgrade scheme is the installation of barrier-free tolling. As I have stated on a number of occasions, my objective is to secure significantly enhanced capacity and an increased level of service on the M50 for road users, including through an early move to barrier-free tolling. I welcome, therefore, the decision by the National Roads Authority to terminate discussions with National Toll Roads regarding the West Link and to effectively begin the process of removing the West Link toll plaza and its replacement by a free flow toll arrangement. I understand that the NRA will be undertaking, in the course of this year, a comprehensive traffic study as a basis for deciding the details of the free flow tolling arrangements, including the toll level and the technology to be used. The NRA will then submit its specific proposals for the free flow toll arrangement for Government approval.
It is a legal requirement, as part of the planning permission granted by the local authority and as a condition of the upgrade of the M50, that a full free flow demand management study be carried out on the M50. This was not something invented in the past few days or thrown into the pot. It was the local authority councillors, the majority of whom are Labour Party and Fine Gael councillors, and good luck to them, who put that in as part of the planning requirements and the conditions of allowing the upgrade to go ahead. That is a statement of fact which is being ignored by many people.
I welcome and agree with that policy approach because having completed a €1 billion upgrade on the M50, we never want to return to the type of congestion that exists today. If we are to be upfront and honest about this, we need to know well into the future the extent of the traffic on the M50 and how to ensure from everybody's perspective, including, specifically, the road users, that they will have a good free flow system on that piece of motorway permanently into the future.
I want to make it clear that the free flow toll arrangement in 2008 will be a single point toll, that the toll will be set at a level equivalent to today's level, index linked, and will fund phase 2 of the M50 upgrade, the cost of free flow tolls and the payment of compensation to NTR from the toll revenue.
I want to state, for the benefit of everybody here, that it was extraordinarily mischievous to suggest that we had to find, on the backs of motorists using the M50, an extra €1.5 billion or whatever to pay, first, for the upgrade and, second, whatever the cost to NTR would be in the future. That is based on the toll revenue as it exists today. There is no imprimatur from me to the NRA or anybody else to load huge increases on motorists using the M50. It will not happen and it is not required. Let us remove, therefore, the second myth from the equation.
My Department is also preparing proposals for amending legislation to strengthen the enforcement provisions in relation to the non-payment of a toll in a barrier-free environment. The introduction of this legislation at the earliest opportunity is a key priority of mine. I want to say, as it was raised by the Opposition, that this legislation, with I hope the assistance of Fine Gael and no doubt the Labour Party, will be facilitated through both Houses this year, well in advance of whether we will have a full free flow tolling system and the need for it in operation. There is no issue with regard to the legislation. Most of the work on it is complete and I will bring it before both Houses in due course. There will be no delay and no delay leading to the delivery of the new system.
The approach now being adopted reflects the reality of a binding legal contract between the NRA and NTR which gives the latter certain rights. Some commentators seem to consider that it is open to the Government or me, and the NRA to simply abrogate these rights and to unilaterally change the terms of a contract approved in principle by Government in 1984 and concluded in 1987. This is not possible. Neither was it possible when the NRA negotiated the supplemental agreement in 2000. The supplemental agreement for the second West Link bridge had to be negotiated within the provisions of the original 1987 agreement. In the circumstances, the approach being adopted by the NRA represents the best approach to resolving a very difficult problem and is one I fully support.
The M50 upgrade project was approved by An Bord Pleanála early last year. I believe we would all agree that the NRA has made very good progress in getting phase 1 to construction.
Before leaving the M50 issue, it should be noted that, as the chief executive of the NRA indicated to the Committee of Public Accounts, recently the planning permission granted for the upgrade requires that the NRA, in future years, continues to address the need to prevent future traffic growth from returning the upgraded M50 to unacceptable congestion conditions. He indicated in this regard that any contract entered into for barrier-free tolling arrangements must allow the NRA the flexibility to accommodate and satisfy these planning permission requirements.
I want to deal with the issue of why that may take two years. From my perspective and that of the Government, the quicker we can make the move from a fixed tolling barrier system to a free flow system, the better. We must be honest in this House, however, because I will not pretend that we are in a position, as a sovereign Government, to ignore international procurement rules. To procure such a move in a public tendering process takes, on average, one year, moving at a good pace. If we get that done and have a free flow system up and running within another 11 months, it will be a record for this country.
Let us not pretend that I or any Minister has, within our remit, permission to ignore all the procurement requirements that we are internationally obliged to adhere to in the context of a move from the barrier fixed system to a free tolling system. I would like to announce to the people at 9 a.m. tomorrow that we will have that in place by 3 p.m. in the afternoon. Those who pretend that this is in some way possible are grossly misleading people. Those are the facts.
Others are suggesting that we lift the barriers tomorrow morning and that there are various ways of doing it. Let them be honest and say that the taxpayer must pick up the bill for those who are not paying when the barriers are open.
To take such an approach would be a very substantial penalty on all taxpayers, not just the users of the M50. If that is the position of the Fine Gael Party, it should say so. It should say that it wants tens of millions of euro taken away from health, education or wherever, but should stop being dishonest on this issue. What I have said is a clear unequivocal statement of the facts and I will debate the issues with anybody, on any platform or forum. People should not make up so-called urban myths and legends that I am supposed to have said over the past week or two. I find myself in the extraordinary position comparable to the Lyndon Johnson maxim, which has become currency to the effect that: "I know he did not say it, but I want to hear him deny it".
It now appears that once the Labour Party says I said something, ergo I said it and it becomes a fact. The fact is that I did not. It is as simple as that. I have set out consistently this evening everything that has happened over the past two weeks. People were saying for the past two years that somebody should do something about the fixed toll plaza and NTR. I was the Minister who had the courage to do it. People should stop pretending that I have done something different to what everybody has been calling for over the last 12 months, because the facts clearly speak for themselves.
As a Minister of the Government, or as anyone else, I cannot go to someone's house and tell the owner that I am taking it over and he or she should find something else to do. People have rights. We might not like them, but they have them and we have to respect them. Senator Dooley put that point very well. Whatever one's views of the original contract it added to the infrastructure of the country.
With hindsight, it is an awful contract and we have learned from it. Never again would or has a Government entered into such a contract. It is simply beyond——
It is important to be calm and to put the facts. All I ask Members to do, as Senator McDowell has done, is to debate the issue on the facts. Members may disagree with the policy decision I make. That is their choice, but they should debate it on the facts.
I want to put on record the commitment of the Government, as part of its integrated approach to meeting transport needs, to the improvement of public transport in the greater Dublin area. A well-developed national road network and a free flowing upgraded M50 are obviously of major importance for growth and development in the Dublin area. Since 1997, we have concentrated transport investment on the construction of high-quality roads while also upgrading railway lines and services, building Luas and implementing other measures such as quality bus corridors. In the future, however, investment in public transport will be the main focus in the greater Dublin area.
Transport 21 will result in the transformation of the public transport system in the greater Dublin area. This will be achieved through a major expansion of rail-based public transport infrastructure and by providing significantly increased bus capacity, combined with more quality bus corridors. Transport 21 will create a fully-integrated transport system for Dublin. It will be possible to get to most parts of the city with at most one change of train. Metro lines will provide rapid rail links to the city from Swords and Dublin Airport and an orbital route through the western suburbs to complement the M50 linking Tallaght, Clondalkin, Lucan and Blanchardstown to metro north at Ballymun.
The construction of an interconnector tunnel from Heuston Station to the docklands will allow for the provision of DART services from Hazelhatch to Balbriggan and from Bray to Maynooth. Luas will be extended to the Dublin docklands, Lucan, Citywest, Liffey Junction, Cherrywood and Bray and the existing red and green lines will be linked. A major hub at St. Stephen's Green will integrate metro, commuter rail and light rail services in the city.
This increased investment in public transport, combined with the upgrade of the M50, the completion of the port tunnel and the upgrade of other national routes in the Dublin area, including the completion of the Naas Road and the Finglas-Ashbourne section of the N2, will ensure that the greater Dublin area has a high-quality integrated transport network capable of supporting its growth and development in the future.
Concerns have been raised as regards the additional volumes of HGVs which will be using the M50 following the opening of the Dublin Port tunnel this summer. I met with key stakeholders this week including Dublin City Council, the NRA and the Dublin Port Company to ensure that these agencies develop a co-ordinated traffic management strategy for the opening of the port tunnel. My Department is working with all the parties to ensure that the Dublin Port tunnel is brought into operation in an efficient and effective manner and to ensure the smooth integration of traffic from the port tunnel with the Dublin road network.
Before concluding I want to refer briefly to the toll PPP roads programme. The national roads improvement programme, in line with the national development plan and more recently, Transport 21, provides for the procurement and construction of a number of major roads as toll PPP projects. The current position is that three projects — the second West Link bridge, the Dundalk western bypass and the Kilcock-Kinnegad section of the N4 — have been completed. Work is under way on the Fermoy bypass and is due to start on the Waterford city bypass and phase 2 of the Limerick southern ring road this year.
A number of other toll PPP projects — the N6, Galway-Ballinasloe, N7 and N8, Portlaoise-Cullahill, and the M50 PPP upgrade — are at earlier stages of procurement but I understand that the National Roads Authority expects these schemes to be in construction by early 2007. The Clonee-Kells section of the N3 is currently before the courts and the timeline for commencing that scheme will depend on the outcome of the hearing.
The projects to be undertaken as toll PPPs have been selected by the NRA having regard to a number of principles. One of these key principles is that toll roads should be spread across the main national routes in order to create an equitable distribution of user charging on the newly-constructed network along with the benefits of the accelerated delivery of the new roads. Another fundamental underlying principle of the NRA PPP programme is that an alternative toll-free route be available for road users. Toll PPPs are only undertaken following rigorous assessment in line with Department of Finance requirements and guidelines and capital appraisal and where such assessment demonstrates that it offers value for money. The toll programme is making a significant contribution to the accelerated implementation of the national roads upgrade programme. It has also facilitated the more extensive use of private sector expertise in the design, construction and operation of facilities.
In summary, the toll road PPP programme will continue to make a significant contribution to the implementation of the national roads improvement programme. To conclude, it will be clear from the foregoing that a clear strategy is in place for the upgrade of the M50 on a phased basis between now and 2010. A central element of this is the installation of free flow tolling on the M50. Free flow tolling will be installed on the M50 in 2008 in parallel with the completion of phase 1 of the M50 upgrade. The M50 upgrade and free flow tolling, combined with the major investment provided for under Transport 21, will transform the transport infrastructure and services in the greater Dublin area and ensure that citizens have a transport system, including a free flow M50, that meets their needs and provides a high level of service.
That is what I call making decisions and delivering solutions.
That is all the time he wants. I am willing to share more with him, but he says he only needs a minute. I may not take my full time because I appreciate that other Members wish to contribute.
I wish the Minister well in what he is trying to do. I want him to do well because the country needs the changes he is proposing to work. He appears extremely confident that they will work. Time will tell because we have seen the mess we have right now coming for some time.
It is hard to have confidence this Government will deliver a project that will actually work because the M50 has been neglected for so many years. I live beside it and was a member of Fingal County Council. We have worked for many years at trying to address the problems of the M50 and surrounding areas. The delay in getting anything done underlines my lack of confidence in this Government's ability to deliver the changes that are necessary, such as road widening and upgrading at the interchanges. It was obvious for many years that such work was necessary.
I realise that when the M50 was built we did not have funding to build the interchanges that were required, such as flyovers rather than roundabouts with traffic lights at the Red Cow and Blanchardstown intersections. At Fingal County Council, we spoke about that for many years. However, with the good economy that this country has now enjoyed for some years, faster progress should have been made to ensure that the work on the interchanges was carried out to deal with the problems on the M50, which are located not just at the toll bridge but at the access points to the road.
I also ask the Minister for Transport — I am sorry that he is now leaving the House — to consider the provision of an outer ring road. Not much has been said about that proposal in this debate, but we have been consistent over the years in pointing out the urgent need for such a road. When the M50 was built people thought that no other outer ring road would be needed, but we have known for many years that we need another ring road to go out as far as Celbridge.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, but I am not convinced that the Ministers will make the necessary changes to bring about the free flow of traffic on the M50. I suspect the problem will simply be moved from one area to another. If the Minister's plan is simply to remove toll barriers from one point of the M50, why does he not do that? His logic is lost on me, as I cannot see how that will result in the improvements that are necessary.
I recently visited San Francisco and travelled along the bridge that connects the airport to the city. I am not referring to the Oakland Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge but to another bridge that also runs for miles but whose name is difficult to remember. I noticed that, as on many other toll bridges around the world, incentives such as car pooling are promoted. We have never tried car pooling, which can be successful on roads as well as on toll bridges, so I ask the Minister to consider introducing such incentives. That bridge in San Francisco also has tolling in one direction, so drivers pay the toll going one direction but do not pay it on their way back. Again, pressure on the toll booths would be relieved if that kind of thing was introduced.
The delay in bringing about the necessary changes, which have been obvious to all concerned for a long time, should be a source of shame for the Government. Our motion highlights the hold-ups the delay has caused. The necessary changes were laid out in that great document A Platform for Change, but the plans have simply gathered dust or been reinvented in new forms such as Transport 21. No doubt we will see other such documents with the same proposals and projects year after year. We want to see implementation of the plans and some co-ordination among the bodies concerned.
I thank Senator Terry for sharing her time with me.
The final part of the Fine Gael motion highlights the unusual intensity of tolling that is proposed for the road between Galway and Dublin. Senator Kitt suggested that motorists could take alternative routes if they want to avoid the tolls, but the sad reality is that truck drivers who tried to avoid the single existing toll were told that the local authority would take them to court to force them to use the toll road. Therefore, I do not think the Senator's simplistic response is realistic.
If this country is aiming for a regional balance in development, imposing four tolls on people travelling, whether with goods or otherwise, from Galway to Dublin Airport or the port tunnel is simply punitive. The proposed tolls would be on Galway's outer ring road, at Cappataggle near Ballinasloe, at Kinnegad and finally on the M50. In no other place in Europe or elsewhere in the world would one find such an intensity of proposed toll routes.
At a time when many Government agencies are trying to develop a regional balance between the west and the east of the country, people are still coming up with such daft ideas. I am sorry the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, is no longer present, but that is the reality of the tolling situation that he, in conjunction with the NRA, has proposed. The proposal is not acceptable and must be changed, whatever consequences the Minister claims.
I want to share some of my time with Senator O'Toole, who also wants to speak.
In response to Senator Ulick Burke's last point, I suggest that people travelling from Galway to Dublin who find themselves going through the M50 toll booth have obviously gone astray——
I do not subscribe to the notion that the deal done with NTR in 1987 or prior to that was a good agreement. It is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight that the deal was a bad agreement, but even at the time it should have been fairly obvious that a period of 30 or 35 years for such an agreement was too long. The agreement should have included a reference to the internal rate of return so that the earlier termination of the contract would have been triggered in the event that the road turned out to be the cash cow that it has become. However, I do not believe that all the fingers should necessarily be pointed at the politicians. The people within the Department who were involved in the negotiations over a protracted period of time should have spotted the need for such a requirement.
I welcome the initiative announced by the Minister, who is to be commended for taking the bull by the horns and terminating the intolerable situation of the M50 toll bridge. I also welcome the Minister's statement to the House that there will be only one tolling area when we move to barrier-free tolls. That statement flies in the face of many of the adverse comments the Opposition has made recently.
On the general issue of tolls, I do not believe we should necessarily have tolls on bypasses. Whereas the toll on the M50 covers a large stretch of motorway that should be tolled, imposing tolls on bypasses such as those in Limerick and Waterford would not be the right direction to go. I have no difficulty with requiring people who use the excellent M1 going north to Dundalk to pay tolls, because no one could be anything other than glad to pay a toll for the opportunity of using that route rather than the previous road. Tolls should apply on motorways between our major centres of population.
There are lessons from this on how we deal with public-private partnerships. I am not convinced that PPPs are the way forward for infrastructure. As an alternative I suggest we should establish semi-State companies which would be in charge of our motorways either prior or subsequent to their construction. If such companies were allowed to borrow, they would be able to secure funding with interest rates of around 3% or 4%. That would cost far less than the returns of between 10% and 12% per annum that are demanded by private consortiums. We need to consider such arrangements as an alternative, or even as a supplement, to the way in which we currently finance our roads programme.
Before starting, I wish to make a point of order. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges recently considered situations such as this, where a Minister is allowed to continue over the time limit in a situation where other Members wish to contribute. It was the view of the CPP that the Chair should be entitled to allocate an additional number of minutes to the debate. I am not demanding that now but tonight is a clear example of why it is necessary.
I thank Senator Jim Walsh for sharing his time and compliment him on his approach to tolls, which appears to be that there should be a toll everywhere except in the south east. There is nothing wrong with that if one is trying to be elected there. However, he referred to a crucial issue. Much as we dislike what is on the M50, one cannot object to the point made by the Minister that a watertight contract has been signed. We can solve the other problems at one stage or another but there is no solution to that. We are stuck with the contract.
Let us focus on that and how it came about. Tribunals have been running in this country for years, dealing with a couple of million euro here and there. This contract involves about €1 billion. Somebody signed it on behalf of the State and somebody signed it on behalf of the county council at a cost of €1 billion to the Irish people. That should be examined. Who negotiated it? I know who signed it but I will speak about them shortly. What contact was made? We should examine the tendering process and hear from the State's lawyers and other lawyers about the validity of that contract and how it came to be concluded at that time.
The two people who signed it were the former Minister, Pádraig Flynn, and George Redmond, the former Dublin assistant city and county manager, whose names arose in another context in recent times. That is worth examining. I would like to be reassured as to how that contract was concluded. I cannot believe it is a coincidence. I believe a wrong has been done on the Irish people. We can argue about traffic forever and we might resolve some of the problems, but we cannot resolve the contract. We are stitched into it so we should try to find out how it was concluded. Who is responsible for making the decisions on tendering, drawing up the contract, signing it and so forth?
I believe I am more confused now than I was before the debate, although it was a good debate. Senator Jim Walsh spoke about PPPs. I have sought a debate on PPPs on numerous occasions in the Seanad. The PPPs are cash cows and they affect more than just the M50. There are also cash cows for schools, water supply, sewerage and other facilities. The House should debate public-private partnerships.
It is a pity the Minister has left because he might have been able to clarify something in his speech. He said that free flow toll arrangements in 2008 would be a single point toll and that the toll will be set at a level equivalent to today's level, index linked, and will fund phase 2 of the M50 upgrade, the cost of free flow tolls and the payment of compensation to NTR. The Minister went on to say that phase 2 is being procured by a public-private contract and involves the widening of the remaining three lanes and the upgrade of the other interchanges. On the one hand, therefore, the Minister says phase 2 will be a PPP but on the other hand, he says phase 2 will be paid for from the free flow tolling. What will the PPP for phase 2 involve? It is a pity the Minister is not here to explain it.
The Government's amendment notes the decision of the NRA to terminate negotiations with NTR regarding the West Link, welcomes the comprehensive traffic study of the M50 which will be carried out by the NRA and notes that, following completion of this study, the NRA will complete specific proposals for free flow tolling of the M50. Why can the Government not implement the barrier-free toll system now? Why must this study be carried out? The Minister says it is a condition attached to the planning permission by Fingal County Council. However, it was not Fingal County Council that granted planning permission but An Bord Pleanála. I am more confused now than I was before the debate.
The Minister said nothing about the roundabouts on the M50. These are one of the biggest problems. I take the N4 route from Dublin and encounter serious problems. Sometimes it takes two hours to get to the M50 from the city centre but once one gets past the M50 there is no problem getting home.
I am paying too much tax and too many tolls. I pity the people who live in Kinnegad and Enfield who must pay €5 per day to go to work in Dublin. That is equivalent to an extra €109 per month on one's mortgage. If everybody's mortgage increased by €109 per month, there would be much talk about it. However, that is what these people must pay.
Senator Quinn referred to the polluter pays principle, that is, the more one uses, the more one pays. However, I presume he meant that the more one uses the road, the less one should pay, which is different. The people from Kinnegad and Enfield should be given a concession. That should also apply to people in Cork where tolls have been introduced. People who work in Galway city will also have to pay each day to go to work. There should be concessions for people who use the roads on a daily basis while people who use them on a weekly or monthly basis should pay the toll.
There is nothing in the Minister's speech which leads me to believe that anything will be done in the next two to five years about the daily congestion on the M50. I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for your latitude regarding time. I regret that the Minister is not present to explain the public-private partnership for the second phase of the M50 upgrade given that he also says it will be paid for by the toll.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Brendan Daly, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, 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, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 21 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Geraldine Feeney, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Michael McCarthy, Derek McDowell, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry, Joanna Tuffy)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators P. Burke and Cummins.
Amendment declared carried.