Seanad debates

Thursday, 4 October 2007

1:00 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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My motion relates to the metro north project. Before addressing the point, I stress the principles I seek to have addressed, which are first, accountability — we need to know who is responsible for major decisions about the taxpayers' money, and second, transparency — we need to be clear how the money is being spent and the purposes for which it is being spent.

The history of metro north is very clear. The need for such a project was identified in 1992. It then became part of the Transport 21 initiative in 2005 with its funding identified in the current national development plan. The total funding provided in that plan for public transport is approximately €12.6 billion, which leads me on to the cost of the metro project. The last time such figures were made clearly and proactively available by the Government was in 2002 when the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, identified the cost at approximately €1.2 billion. Since then, successive Ministers have refused to confirm or deny such a figure. It was only earlier this year that a freedom of information request seemed inadvertently to obtain a figure of €4.6 billion. If this figure is correct it would make the metro north project the largest single project ever undertaken in the history of the State. As such the degree of debate and scrutiny on it needs to be heightened.

The second relevant piece of information on the matter came from the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, recently, when he identified that he expected 34 million passengers to use the metro every year and for approximately 41,000 cars to be taken off the road. In placing the motion before the House I have simply joined those pieces together to raise a number of points in need of response from the Government. If the €4.6 billion figure is correct — the Government has neither confirmed nor denied it — the cost per taxpayer will be at least €22 per trip based on work I have had done independently. If that is correct the cost will be more than five times the equivalent trip on the Luas. That point needs to be discussed and teased out.

The passenger figures released by the Government of 34 million trips per year indicate a degree of success that are multiples of what similar projects enjoy in other countries. If the figure was correct and the figure of the Minister, Deputy Cullen, of 41,000 cars being taken off the road by the metro was correct, it would mean that 42% of car trips in the vicinity of the metro will go into the metro. If that is true, the nearest figure we have for other metro projects in Europe are for Madrid, which estimated 22% and Sheffield, which estimated a similar project at 21%. Many other projects across the UK have a displacement rate of approximately 12% to 13%. The assumption we have on the numbers of passengers who will use the metro are at least twice the best performance of a similar project elsewhere.

All those points lead to three simple questions addressed in the motion and on which I would appreciate a response. These are all policy issues and not operational matters for the RPA. Can the Minister of State confirm that the cost of €4.6 billion is correct? If that cost is correct this will be the biggest project the country has ever undertaken. Taxpayers and Members of the Oireachtas are entitled to know that figure. Can the Minister of State confirm whether a cost-benefit analysis of the project has been completed and whether the Government will make it available to public and Oireachtas scrutiny before a planning application is lodged by An Bord Pleanála by the end of the year? Can the Minister of State give a commitment on behalf of the Government that as the project really heats up the RPA's commitment to working with the local community and sharing relevant information in a timely fashion will be deepened. The local community in the area where the metro will be located is concerned about many aspects of the project and wants these matters addressed.

I am looking for a response on these policy issues as to how taxpayers' money will be spent on the largest project we have ever undertaken.

2:00 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children, Department of Health and Children; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I will respond on behalf of the Minister for Transport and the Marine, Deputy Dempsey, who is unavoidably absent. Metro north is a core part of the investment strategy set out in Transport 21 to provide a modern, high quality and high capacity public transport system to address the transport needs of the greater Dublin area. It is a critical project not only in meeting existing transport needs but in providing the transport infrastructure required to provide for future growth. Current projections are that the population in the Fingal area is set to double in the next 20 years and the absence of the high capacity transport infrastructure provided by metro north would represent acceptance of rapidly increasing congestion and deterioration in the Dublin area as a place in which to do business and live.

Metro north will provide a rapid, high-capacity, high-frequency link between Dublin city centre and Swords via Dublin Airport. Initially, an estimated 34 million passengers a year will travel on this service, with trains every four minutes and the estimated journey time from the city centre to Dublin airport will be less than 20 minutes. It will address a major deficit in public transport infrastructure in north Dublin by providing a high-capacity rail-based connection from the central Fingal area to the city centre. It will significantly enhance transport access to locations such as Dublin Airport, Mater Hospital and DCU and play a key role in the provision of an integrated rail-based public transport network through interchanges with Luas at St. Stephen's Green and with suburban rail at Drumcondra and St. Stephen's Green. Metro north, together with the Luas green line, also provides a new north-south spine to the rail infrastructure in Dublin, with a much wider catchment area than the DART.

It will provide park and ride sites at key locations along the route. This means metro north will benefit people from far beyond its immediate catchment area. There is a clear decision-making process laid out for major projects like metro north. All of these projects must comply with the Minister for Finance's capital appraisal and public private partnership guidelines. This has been done in the case of metro north. A statutory railway order process is then followed so that the relevant powers to build these projects can be obtained from An Bord Pleanála. Work is now well under way by the Railway Procurement Agency on the preparation of an environmental impact statement and the documentation required to support an application to An Bord Pleanála for a railway order. There will be a full opportunity for people to object or offer views and there will be a public hearing to air all the relevant issues. It will be entirely a matter for An Bord Pleanála to decide whether to grant a railway order.

Metro north must also follow a rigorous EU-mandated public procurement process. Only when this process is complete will we be aware of the full and final likely cost of the project. It is also important that the State's capacity to obtain full value for money from a competitive procurement process is not prejudiced by setting out in advance what we may be prepared to pay for such infrastructure.

Last month the Railway Procurement Agency announced the outcome of the first stage of the procurement process for metro north which involved the selection of those candidates who have been pre-qualified for the tender stage of the project. In all, 14 candidates have passed the pre-qualifying stage — four infrastructure providers, five rolling stock providers and five operators. Qualified candidates have until 2 November to form bidding groups. When the outcome of the statutory approval and public procurement processes are known the final business case for the projects will be submitted to Government for decision. The Government will judge all the factors — cost, economic evaluation results, land use and transport rationale when making its decision.

The Government will publish full information on the business case for these projects and the factors taken into account in making decisions on them in due course. This will be done when there is no danger that it will have a negative impact on the State's ability to get best value for money through the public procurement process. The basis for the Government decision will be transparent but it will be handled in such a way as to avoid compromising the State's commercial interests and, by extension, the interests of all taxpayers. Therefore, while I am confident Transport 21 includes an appropriate budget provision for the implementation of metro north, I cannot release details of the cost or other commercially sensitive material relating to the project. To do so at this stage would impact on the procurement process and potentially prejudice the State's capacity to derive maximum value for money from such a competitive procurement process.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I appreciate the Minister of State's response. My party and I are deeply committed to the concept of superb public transport and we recognise the role of the metro in this regard. The Minister of State said the detailed business case process will commence following the completion of the planning process when the outcome of the An Bord Pleanála application will be known. That work should be done now to ensure the correct criteria are laid down for those who will tender for the project. Ways must be found to ensure the Oireachtas and the public are informed regarding the cost of major projects that will be paid for by many generations to come without commercial interests being infringed. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State conveyed to the Minister for Transport and the Marine my desire that the RPA work as collaboratively and transparently as possible with the surrounding communities because that is badly needed.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for attending.