Wednesday, 7 May 2008
I was about to issue the usual complaint that we do not have a Cabinet Minister in the House but perhaps we do. We will find out very shortly. I hope so and I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Smith well in the hours to come.
I raise the issue of the M50 and the degree of ministerial responsibility on the setting of the tolls when and if they are implemented in August. The Minister will be well aware that there was a campaign to open the old toll bridge on the M50 to remove the tolls and barriers. A politically driven decision was taken approximately 18 months ago that this should happen in August this year and that the tolls should be taken electronically. It worries me that one monopoly has been replaced by another tyranny. A private monopoly has been replaced by a public monopoly. I want to elicit from the Minister what role he will play after August when electronic tolling is introduced. This is an opportunity for the Government to play the kind of detached role it likes to play by saying a semi-State agency, the NRA, is in charge and that it is nothing to do with the Government. When it is convenient the Government can claim credit for things State agencies do well but when it is not the Government can step back and say the NRA is an agency with a certain degree of independence.
I would like the Minister to say whether he considers the toll too high and what the NRA has already done monopolistic. We have had the imposition of a €2 toll at a certain point on the M50 and it was believed that would be the toll for the current year. However I gather that in August, due to a spontaneous decision by the NRA, those tolls will rise again. The rises are outrageous. Some regular drivers who get the right tag will still pay €2; other categories of drivers, including those who pre-register and travel casually, will have their tolls raised by 50 cent in one case and €1 in another. This is for an individual, ordinary motorist travelling through there. Those are 25% and 50% rises, which are unforgivable and impossible to justify, particularly as they crucify the same motorists who have been crucified for many years and who get no return on it.
I appeal to the Minister to tell us what he intends to do about this. The procedure in place for an appeal against these types of imposed tolls was triggered last December. When the increases were announced the National Consumer Agency, NCA, another Government agency without much clout, appealed against them. The NCA appealed to a person appointed by the NRA. Therefore, a Government agency appealed against price rises by another Government agency, but the appeals arbitrator was appointed by one of the parties involved. That is in the legislation and that is the NRA's defence. It is completely unjust that one of the parties involved should appoint the adjudicator. I would like to hear the Minister's views on that and whether he can move in and do something to reduce these tolls, restrict the activities of the NRA and cut it down to size and ensure there is an appeals procedure that has credibility. The result of that appeal, as the Minister knows, was that the NRA won game, set and match. I suggest that this was not unpredictable in the circumstances.
If tolls are to be imposed on the M50 and other roads, will the Minister ensure they are imposed fairly? The toll point for electronic tolling on the M50 is exactly the same, give or take 100 yards or so, as was used — and is still being used today — for manual West Link tolling. Why should those who go through that point subsidise the trips of others who do not go through it but use large stretches of the motorway? One can go from Bray to the turn-off to Naas and further without paying anything, but if one goes through that point one will have to pay €2, €2.50 or €3, which will be the new tolls from August. I ask the Minister of State to explain the role the Minister will have in this, what he will do about these outrageous tolls and what powers he will have in the future.
I am giving this reply to the House on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who is unavoidably absent. I note that this issue has for many years been close to the heart of Senator Ross. I have had the opportunity to listen to the Senator speaking in the broadcast media and read his comments in the print media, and I know he has highlighted such issues over many years in various forums.
As Senator Ross knows, the Minister for Transport is responsible for national roads policy and funding. However, the detailed planning, design and implementation of all aspects of individual road improvement schemes, including such matters as the removal of the toll barriers at the West Link on the M50, is the responsibility of the National Roads Authority under section 17 of the Roads Act 1993. Furthermore, the statutory power to levy tolls on national roads, to make toll by-laws, and to enter into toll agreements with private investors in respect of national roads is vested in the NRA under Part V of the Roads Act 1993, as amended.
The Senator will be aware that it is Government policy under Transport 21 to address the issue of congestion on the M50 as a matter of priority. The M50 has experienced massive traffic growth in line with economic and employment growth and increased car ownership rates. Average annual daily traffic flows on a number of sections of the M50 are greater than 85,000 vehicles and major congestion occurs at peak times. The solution to this is the upgrade of the M50 along with the move to barrier-free tolling. A key part of the M50 improvement strategy is the transition to barrier-free tolling, which I understand from the NRA is on schedule to become operational in August 2008, as mentioned by Senator Ross in his contribution. This will entail the removal of the current West Link toll plaza and its replacement with a fully electronic barrier-free tolling system that will allow drivers to travel unencumbered along the M50.
I emphasise that in outlining the barrier-free tolling arrangements to the Government in 2007 the NRA indicated that the changeover would not entail any special increase, other than periodic inflation-related increases, in the basic toll level for users with electronic toll tags. The expected electronic toll of €2 from August 2008 is in line with these indications. However, it is clearly important for the efficient operation of the electronic system that the fullest possible level of participation is encouraged. To that end, an incentive for participation is provided by the application of higher toll charges for those who elect not to use electronic tags. This is normal practice in toll systems around the world.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the House on the progress being made on the M50 upgrade project. The project, which involves widening of the M50 to three lanes, with a fourth auxiliary lane in places, and upgrading of the interchanges, will have significant benefits, as it will expand the capacity of the M50 to deal with at least 50% more traffic than at present; improve average peak-hour speeds; reduce traffic congestion on the radial routes, particularly the N3, the N4 and the N7; and improve traffic flow on the whole Dublin road network.
The upgrade of the M50 is being carried out in three phases. Work on phases 1 and 3 are either complete or close to completion. Phase 2 will be fully completed in 2010. Work on phase 1 of the upgrade is now well advanced and on schedule for completion in the autumn of this year. The upgraded N4 and Ballymount junctions are now fully open to traffic and the mainline section of the phase 1 project, at almost 8 km, is now open with four lanes — three plus one auxiliary lane — in each direction. Road users are already experiencing the benefits this improvement has brought to their everyday commutes. Work is continuing on the N7 junction, commonly referred to as the Red Cow junction, sections of which have already been completed. The junction is due for completion in the autumn of this year.
Phase 2 of the upgrade is well under way, with a target completion date of 2010, while phase 3 is now complete, with four lanes now open to traffic. The total cost of the upgrade is approximately €1 billion and, as has often been the case with national road schemes over the past few years, it is on target for completion on time and within budget.
I will conclude by pointing out that road users will continue to see significant benefits being delivered on the M50 during 2008 when the first phase of the motorway upgrade is fully completed and barrier-free tolling is in place. Further improvement of the M50 will take place on completion of the final stage of the upgrade in 2010.
I assure Senator Ross that I will bring the specific issues he raised in his contribution to the attention of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey. As I mentioned, I have listened on many occasions to Senator Ross speaking on this issue in various broadcast media and read his comments in the print media. He has, to say the least, been a tenacious campaigner on tolling and the M50.
I find an anomaly in this area. The road we are talking about is under Government control. The Minister of State said in his reply that the day-to-day running of the roads is under the remit of the NRA. That is technically true. However, the buy-out, which is the important thing for the M50, was decided and paid for by the Government. The former Minister, Deputy Cullen, regularly answered detailed questions — perhaps not adequately — about the M50 and how it would operate. Could the Minister of State assure me that the Minister for Transport, whoever he is — it could be anybody in this room at this moment — will keep us informed of the day-to-day running of the M50, as it is of such public importance, and will keep a vigilant eye on the NRA to prevent its putting up tolling prices to indefensible levels?