Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Cuirim fáilte den Aire Stáit. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am very pleased that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, is dealing with this matter.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. Last week the committee heard a submission from Mr. Fred Barry, the chief executive of the National Roads Authority, and its officials. In the course of the exchanges with all members relating to various roads projects, either up and running, dormant or planned, I asked a number of specific questions relating to the N16 in Leitrim. The Minister of State will be familiar with this road because it is a link from Galway through Mayo, Sligo, Enniskillen and on to Belfast. The N16 was originally on the national league study published with the first NRA report in 1999. At that time it was indicated that it could be 2018 before any money would be spent on it. A further national transport plan for 2020 was published in 2005 which also set out various aspirations relating to the development of our road network. Over the past years there has been a growth in the development of our road network which has proved to be very important for economic renewal. However, the N16 has languished. Very little money has been spent on it. It should be noted that it is a major trading route as well as a tourism route because it links the major centres of Galway through Mayo, Sligo and on to the North.
I asked Mr. Barry about the plans for the N16 and where it figured on the list. He conceded that the state of the road was unacceptable. He also agreed that it had been bounced around over the various studies, aspirations and policy decisions of the past 15 years. More significant, I asked him about the position of the N16 on a list of priority projects - if such a list of priorities existed. I assumed, naively, that a list existed. I asked a rather innocent question as to the position of the N16 on the list. Mr. Barry replied that there was no list. I said it seemed strange that the NRA does not have a list of priorities for roads projects, notwithstanding the Government is tied for money and capital projects are limited. For example, the Gort to Tuam road is proceeding and this is to be welcomed. Mr. Barry justified the information on the basis that because the NRA had no money, there was not much point in having a list. I decided the best action was to ask the Minister if his Department had a list. How does the process work? What would be the position of any road - not just the N16 - be it in Mayo or Leitrim, on the list of priorities? Is it a case that a project is proceeded with around budget time or when there is a bit of money in the coffers? How does the NRA decide? No more than a prisoner who wants to know his release date, I would like to have some idea of whether it will be ten, 15 or 20 years. I asked Mr. Barry the question in an attempt to elicit a response. I did not anticipate that the Minister or his Department would say that the N16 is No. 5 on the list and it will be completed by 2020. However, I am hoping there might be some bit of information from a Department that is not, I have to say, traditionally known for giving away too many secrets, no matter who is in government.
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Varadkar, and I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this issue in the House.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has responsibility for overall policy and funding in respect of the national roads programme. However, the planning, design and implementation of individual national roads projects are matters for the National Roads Authority, the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. The Government's infrastructure and capital investment framework formed the basis for a new national development plan for the period 2012 to 2016. There was ongoing discussion with the National Roads Authority during the preparation of this investment framework. The framework recognises that the key challenge in current financial circumstances is to try to ensure adequate maintenance of the national road network in order to protect the value of previous investments and that it is only possible to proceed with a very limited number of road improvement projects over the period to 2016. The investment framework acknowledges that, given the scale and cost of future motorway and high quality dual carriageway projects, it would not be feasible to fund them directly from Exchequer resources. Rather, it was intended to fund them by means of a public private partnership using private money to build and maintain these roads, to be repaid back by the Exchequer over an extended period in the form of availability payments. In this context, provision was made for funding the Exchequer element of the N11 Arklow-Rathnew and Newlands Cross PPP scheme within the 2012 to 2016 capital budget.
It was indicated that while the private funding market was very challenging intensive efforts were being made to access funding for PPP projects with a view to the National Roads Authority progressing projects such as the Gort-Tuam PPP and the New Ross-Enniscorthy PPP. In July this year, as part of the Government's infrastructure stimulus package, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform announced that ¤850 million would be invested in upgrading the national motorway and primary route network. As part of this plan, which will be funded in part from the proposed sale of State assets, three road PPP projects have been identified for funding. These projects are, the N17-N18 Gort Tuam road, the M11 Gorey-Enniscorthy road and the N25 New Ross bypass. These projects, together with the N11 Arklow-Rathnew road and N7 Newlands Cross scheme, had been identified by the NRA some time ago as suitable for progression as PPPs. These are projects where there is considerable certainty regarding the timeframe for implementation as all the lands required have been secured.
One further priority transport project is the Galway city bypass. This is a 12 km orbital route for Galway city linking with the M6 major interurban route to Dublin. The project is currently on hold pending the outcome of legal proceedings. Depending on the outcome of those proceedings it is hoped to progress it as an additional PPP project. Unfortunately, financial constraints mean that other worthwhile projects cannot go ahead in the short to medium term with progress very much dependent on the availability of funds after 2016.
I thank the Minister of State for the reply. However, it is obvious that a project scheme is in place for the period 2012 to 2016. The Minister of State has outlined a number of these projects and has referred to the severe constraints on the public budget. In the context of the 2012 to 2016 capital budget, is Government planning to confine itself to the projects as outlined and only if they are PPP projects?
Could projects such as the N16 road project be the subject of a PPP in the future? I do not ask the Minister of State to outline how the system works but how road projects are selected for PPPs? Is a commercial decision taken by the private partners who see merit in it or does the Government decide on the basis of priorities around the country? I am trying to figure it out in the context of the N16 road project.
PPPs are simple. Business people are prepared to invest in them provided they believe they can generate a return on their money. In the case of the stimulus budget announced by the Government a number of weeks ago, it is hoped some State assets will be sold. The Senator has mentioned a specific project. Everything depends on the state of the country's finances. We can criticise what happened during the Celtic tiger era for many reasons, but one good thing that emerged was the road infrastructure provided. There can be many criticisms, but that is one positive aspect. PPPs are about investors who will only go where they will make money. They are beginning to come back and people are beginning to have more confidence in the country. We saw this in the funding generated from the auction of 4G mobile phone licences last week. The Government expected to generate less money. This shows that the shoots are emerging and that things are looking a little better. There is a little confidence in the country and everything boils down to growth. The more money there is in the economy, the more opportunities we will have to allocate funding for road projects. The Department is committed to the N17-N18 Gort-Tuam and the M11 Gorey-Enniscorthy road projects and the N25 New Ross bypass project and I hope they will commence. The Galway project depends on planning, but we hope to continue with it. Other projects are in the pipeline, but they all depend on the provision of funding.
The Senator and I are from rural constituencies. The big issue for everybody is that of road maintenance. We need to ensure sufficient funding is available for this task because there is no point in destroying the good roads we have. We must maintain them and ensure people have proper roads on which to drive.