Dáil Éireann - Volume 536 - 16 May, 2001
Adjournment Debate. - Road Tolling Policy.
Ms O. Mitchell Ms O. Mitchell
Ms O. Mitchell: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, for coming in at this late hour. I assure the Minister of State that I do not wish to discuss the strike taking place on two toll bridges in Dublin. I am concerned about issues that may result from the strike and the more general topic of tolling policy. The Minister of State is aware that traffic flow in this city is on a knife edge. The city just about functions in the best of circumstances when the sun shines, the main arteries have not been dug up, traffic signals operate and all other things go well. It may be at a slow pace and at a great cost to our economy and levels of personal stress, but things sometimes function. If any one of the factors I mentioned changes, for example, if a set of traffic lights breaks down, the traffic system collapses.
Dublin cannot and should not have to tolerate a diversion rate of 17% of traffic from the M50 to other local roads which are already congested. The diversion of traffic to other routes today and yesterday is a direct result of the warning to expect delays given by the management of national toll roads. Although I understand why such a warning was given, it is not acceptable that there should be any delays or at least no more delays than normal. The warning should be withdrawn and assurances given that if queues reach a certain level, barriers will be lifted to allow a free flow of traffic. I do not believe the fear of  the inability of management to collect money fast enough is an excuse to hold up traffic or divert it to other congested roads. This should especially not happen on the M50 which was constructed at enormous public expense and inconvenience.
The Government receives several million pounds annually from the proceeds of toll bridges and has an obligation to direct national toll roads management to ensure the public does not suffer as a result of an internal industrial relations dispute. The most important point I wish to make to the Minister of State and which is pungently highlighted by this strike is the urgent need for a public debate on national tolling policy. As Deputy McGuinness mentioned, the National Roads Authority has earmarked 11 key national routes for construction through the PPP process from which the operators will recoup their portion of the investment by means of a toll.
I am not opposed to PPPs, the principle of tolling or the work of the NRA, but it is not right that an important issue such as a national tolling policy, particularly the conditions of such public private contracts should be left to an unaccountable body such as the NRA. The Government and all of us in the public sphere have an obligation to protect the public interest and to maintain the integrity of the national road network. To date there has not been any political input nor an opportunity for public scrutiny of the proposed contracts for these tolling contracts. Will the Minister of State arrange Dáil time or at least Dáil committee time to allow this matter to be discussed and for all of us to satisfy ourselves and the public that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect the public interest?
I do not suggest the Dáil should get involved in contentious route selection processes or even in the principle of tolling. I do not want to delay road construction. I merely want to ensure that where tolling is to take place the public interest is protected. For instance, in many countries toll contracts provide that where queuing at toll barriers reaches a certain level the toll barrier lifts automatically to allow the free flow of traffic through. That was not included in the two tolling contracts we have as motorists find to their cost every morning and evening. That is something that should be included in future contracts.
We must realise that in handing over control of our key national routes to private hands we are offering hostages to fortune. I do not dispute there may be benefits, but Members have an obligation to ensure future risks and exposure of motorists and the tax payer are minimised in respect of maintenance, operation policy, industrial disputes and costs.
I ask the Minister to ensure this matter is brought to the Dáil for discussion before any further progress is made on the 11 routes.
Mr. D. Wallace Mr. D. Wallace
Mr. D. Wallace: I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me an opportunity to respond to it.
 The National Development Plan 2000-2006 envisages significant private sector investment in national road development. Some £1 billion of the £4.4 billion provided for national road improvements in the NDP is to be contributed by public private partnership financing. In addition to the three pilot national roads projects already identified in the plan, the National Roads Authority has announced a further eight PPP schemes for the national road network. These new schemes, together with the pilot projects, will involve total estimated investment of more than £1,000 million with a potential private finance input of some £700 million.
The national development plan stated clearly that the funding structures for PPP projects would include, where appropriate, road user tolls. The PPP approach based on user tolling, should bring worthwhile economies and innovation to Irish road design and guarantee efficiencies in procurement through the real transfer of risk.
User tolls are in widespread use throughout the developed and developing world and are practically favoured where rapid expansion in major road networks is required. They are a considerably more widely used instrument of roads financing than shadow tolls, which are sometimes advocated as an alternative, and more readily permit the transfer of economic risk, which is desirable in PPP projects. While the use of shadow tolls which would involve the State paying tolls on bridges, roads, etc., on the basis of usage, has not been ruled out, road user tolling, on the basis I explained, is more likely to be relied upon in the earlier stages of national roads PPP development.
Motorists opting to pay tolls will receive a higher level of road service than those who choose to divert from the new roads. Alternative routes will remain available and choice will, therefore, be maintained.
Motorists throughout Ireland are currently paying for the provision of road infrastructure regardless of whether they use it. Tolling of major new infrastructural projects will introduce a greater degree of equity into the financing and provision of road projects, as the end user, that is, the motorist who uses the road will pay for the cost of its provision rather than the public at large.
The statutory power to levy tolls on national  roads, to make toll by-laws, and to enter into toll agreements with private investors is vested in the National Roads Authority under Part V of the Roads Act, 1993. Road authorities have similar powers on the tolling of non-national roads.
Under the Planning and Development Act, 2000, ministerial approval is no longer required for toll schemes, by-laws and agreements. In accordance with the revised Part V of the Roads Act, 1993, these matters have been brought fully within the discretion of the National Roads Authority or the relevant local road authority, in the case of national and non-national roads respectively.
In parallel, under the Planning and Development Act, 2000, the Roads Act, 1993, has been amended to provide for the issue of policy directives to the National Roads Authority or local authorities by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government regarding the exercise of their road tolling functions, with which they are obliged to comply. Any such policy directives may not relate to particular tolling schemes and must be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I will briefly refer to the industrial dispute affecting the East and West Link bridges operated by National Toll Roads plc. The resolution of these industrial relations issues is properly a matter for the principal parties concerned, that is, the toll company and its employees. It is not for the Government or the public authorities to become directly involved in this IR process. The road authorities concerned will monitor the situation and take up with the toll company any measures they consider necessary to protect the interest and convenience of motorists.
I would point out that the East and West Link bridges are public roads and as such must be kept opened to the public. I very much regret any inconvenience caused as a result of the dispute and I strongly appeal to the parties concerned to resolve it quickly.
The Government has made clear in the NDP its plans for considerably greater use of user tolling in the implementation of the current national roads programme. That approach is now being taken forward by the NRA and I am confident it will improve the efficiency and the speed of delivery of the national roads programme.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 17 May 2001.
Dáil Éireann 536 Adjournment Debate. Road Tolling Policy.