I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I take this opportunity to wish the Ceann Comhairle every success in his new position.
The Roads Bill 2007 represents an important step in ensuring the implementation of the most modern and efficient system of levying tolls on national roads. It puts forward measures to further improve the efficient and cost effective delivery of the national roads programme under the framework of Transport 21.
The principal purpose of the Bill is to provide the necessary statutory basis to facilitate the implementation of free-flow, open-road tolling, also known as barrier-free tolling, on toll-based national road schemes, through the provision of appropriate deterrents for non-payment of tolls. The Bill provides for the redesignation of certain high quality dual carriageways to be motorways; the provision of service and rest areas on the national road network; some technical amendments to various sections of the Roads Act 1993 and a number of amendments to the Taxi Regulation Act 2003; and the making of by-laws to deal with the issue of parking at sports stadia on event days.
The provisions of the Bill were well received by all sides during its passage through the Seanad in March. There was a positive and constructive debate among our Seanad colleagues on the key aspects of the Bill. Enactment of the Bill before the summer recess is essential if the ambitious timeframe for the introduction of barrier-free tolling is to be met.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to facilitate the introduction of free-flow tolling on the M50. While barrier-free tolling is the centrepiece of the Bill, it is not a panacea for the traffic problems that are experienced on a daily basis by commuters using the M50. The lifting of the barriers is only one part of the Government's M50 strategy. This Government and the National Roads Authority are fully committed to improving the level of service provided to motorists on the M50 and believe this will be best achieved through the M50 upgrade, including the interchanges coupled with the move to barrier free tolling. I will talk in more detail about the various aspects of barrier free tolling a little later. I take this opportunity to inform the Dáil on the progress we have made and are making on the M50.
That M50 upgrade project involves the widening of around 34 km of motorway from two to three lanes in each direction — with a fourth auxiliary lane in places — from south of the M50-M1 interchange near Dublin Airport through to the Sandyford interchange. Critically, it involves the upgrade of ten junctions along this length.
There is no quick fix for congestion on the M50. The total cost of the upgrade is approximately €1 billion and it is being undertaken in three phases. Once complete in 2010 the upgrade will bring 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, N3, N4 and N7; and improve traffic flow on the whole of the Dublin road network.
All the agencies, including South Dublin County Council, Dublin City Council, the National Roads Authority and the Garda are co-operating closely to ensure that everything possible is done to mitigate the impact of the upgrade work on traffic flows on the M50. I am satisfied that no effort is being spared by those responsible for traffic management and law enforcement to alleviate the problems on the M50 in so far as possible and I thank them for their efforts.
Since this issue has received considerable comment, I would just say that the M50 works are progressing as quickly as possible. A constant criticism voiced is that little or no work is carried out during the evening or at weekends. Night-time work regularly takes place on this project but only within the restrictions of the An Bord Pleanála planning permission. The planning permission granted by An Bord Pleanála for the M50 upgrade works explicitly forbids heavy construction work during these time periods. This combination of noise related working restrictions, imposed through the planning process means that the type of 24/7 around the clock operation that a number of commentators and political representatives have called for, and which I would welcome, just cannot be done, as it would be unlawful and in breach of planning permission. These restrictions inevitably mean that the project takes longer to construct than many of us would like.
I am confident that with the upgrade complete by 2010, traffic congestion and delays on the M50 will be reduced and road users will be provided with an improved level of service. Road users will begin to see significant benefits next year when the first phases of the motorway upgrade are complete and the barrier-free tolling, which I will describe in more detail shortly, is in place. Another important step in resolving congestion on the M50 was the decision to remove NTR's tolling concession at West-Link. For commercial and strategic reasons, the NRA, with the agreement of Deputy Martin Cullen, my predecessor as Minister for Transport, decided last year to end the arrangement with NTR under a 1987 agreement for the collection of tolls at West Link up to 2020. NTR has to be compensated in line with the 1987 Agreement, which is a binding contract. However, the compensation arrangement will not leave the taxpayers any worse off than they would have been had the agreement been allowed to run until 2020.
By removing NTR now as opposed to 2020, the State, rather than NTR, will be the beneficiary of the increased toll revenue as a result of the increase in traffic volumes from the upgrade and the way will be paved for the smooth transition to the barrier free tolling regime we are all anxious to see. The toll revenue generated from 2008 onwards will be used to fund the compensation to NTR as well as contributing towards the funding of the M50 upgrade project.
The significant ongoing developments and plans for the M50 must be placed in their proper strategic context. That context is, first of all, the national roads programme and at a higher level the Government's blueprint for transport investment over the next decade.
Transport 21 was launched in November 2005. Earlier this year the national development plan reaffirmed the details of Transport 21 and made it clear to all that it was all about putting in place the infrastructure and systems needed to help to continue Ireland's economic success. It is a programme of work that will see a modern, state of the art, sustainable transport network being rolled out and delivered in the years ahead. It will involve transport investment of more than €34 billion over ten years, the most significant infrastructural investment in the history of the Irish State.
Progress in the national roads programme has been excellent in recent years. However, progress in 2006, the first year of Transport 21, was better than excellent — it was truly exceptional. The Government hit the ground running in the implementation of the roads element of Transport 21. Fourteen projects were completed and open to traffic and a dozen more started construction — more than three times the number of starts in the previous year. The total investment in our roads was €1.7 billion, some €90 million ahead of target.
Work is currently in progress on 23 projects covering more than 450 km of roadway. A large number of other projects are at various stages of planning and design. Ireland's national road network continues to be transformed under Transport 21. Not only is the network being transformed, so is the way in which road projects are being delivered. Most projects are now being delivered on time and in budget. This includes 12 of the 14 schemes opened last year. I am glad to report that many schemes are being delivered ahead of time. These include the N8 Rathcormac-Fermoy bypass, delivered eight months ahead of time, the N21 Kinsale Road interchange, opened six months ahead of schedule and the Ml Dundalk western bypass, finished five months ahead of its original date, while the N4 Kilcock-Kinnegad opened ten months ahead of schedule.
The benefits of the record level of investment in the national roads programme are evident throughout the country. Longstanding bottlenecks have been eliminated. This has delivered substantial journey-time savings and greater certainty. The high quality network being put in place is contributing significantly to supporting our national competitiveness, job creation and the achievement of more balanced regional development. It will also deliver a positive road safety dividend as upgraded roads, particularly motorway or dual carriageway standard roads provide a much safer driving environment.
The primary purpose for the introduction of this legislation is the need to provide the necessary statutory basis to facilitate the implementation of free flow open road tolling, also known as barrier-free tolling, on toll-based national road schemes, through the provision of appropriate deterrents for non-payment of tolls. This legislation is necessary to support the introduction of free flow open road tolling at West Link on the M50 by August 2008.
I take this opportunity to outline several facts about how free flow tolling will operate on the M50 from next summer. This, I hope, will help to dispel some of the rumours and half-truths that have sprung up around the issue.
There will only be tolling at one point on the newly upgraded M50, that is, at the West Link bridge. The existing toll plaza will be knocked down and replaced by two gantries whose purpose will be to read electronic pre-paid tags on vehicles and to take a photographic record of those vehicles that do not have those tags in order to invoice the road users for the payment of the toll.
A road user will be able to pay the toll in a variety of ways. The most common and convenient way is likely to be by prepaid electronic tag, which the motorist will attach to the windscreen of his vehicle. As an incentive, registered users will be offered a discount on the standard toll rate. Users can also post-pay, that is, after they have used the toll road. This can be done over the phone by credit or debit card, on-line or at selected retail outlets.
Non-registered users who use the toll road and who do not pay by 8 p.m. the following day — by phone, on-line or in selected retail outlets — will be sent a letter in the post asking them to pay the toll charge. They will have a number of days to pay the toll charge itself and if they fail to do so they will then incur a liability to pay a default toll.
A toll operator will operate this new system on behalf of the NRA. The BetEire consortium has been appointed to this role. All tolling revenues, after costs, including those accruing from the default toll charge will go to the NRA to be reinvested in the national road network. Tolls will be kept at levels similar to what they are today, allowing for inflation.
The electronic tags that will be used on the M50 will work on all other toll roads including the Dublin Port tunnel. Full interoperability between the various tolling tags in use has been introduced in recent weeks.
The system is being designed and operated by some of the leading experts in the world. It will be up and running as fast as is possible, a full 12 months ahead of a comparable project in Vancouver, Canada. Despite this fact, we live in a world where there is an almost incessant demand to have things delivered now. I can appreciate this especially in respect of the M50; people feel quite rightly that they deserve a better service on that motorway. Commuters and road users continue to ask why the road project cannot be completed sooner. This is perfectly understandable but we must get it right. Time is needed to ensure that all involved do get it right. I firmly belief that this project will, by any objective international standard, be delivered in record time.
The NRA has employed some of the foremost experts in the field to advise it on this matter. These people have constructed and operated toll bridges worldwide, from Vancouver to Paris to California. Their considered expert opinion is that the earliest possible date that we can have a successful new system up and running will be August 2008. Time is needed to design and develop the necessary computerised systems and software and also to construct and install the new tolling gantries and associated electronic apparatus. A further period will be needed to install and test all the systems. Furthermore, back office systems need to be put in place and tested rigorously. There will be trial periods to fine tune the operation before it finally goes live. Overall, this will be done in one year less than the Conference of European Directors of Roads recommends as a realistic implementation timetable for such a project.
Sections 1 and 2 of the Bill set out the various definitions that are used therein. Section 3 is a necessary technical amendment and provides that a toll scheme must specify the way in which tolls will be collected and charged.
Section 4 establishes a charge that a motorist will incur for not paying a toll on time; this charge is known as a default toll. The level of the charge will be set by toll by-laws, which will be drawn up by the NRA following public consultation. At this stage it is not possible to say how much the charge will be, as this requires further research and analytical work by the NRA. However, I can say that the practical application of the charge is likely to be quite similar to that associated with the current parking fine system. The motorist will have the chance to pay the charge within a specified period from the date he receives the default toll notice. If he fails to pay within the allotted time, the charge will increase by a multiple of the original charge. If the charge is still unpaid after a further period of time then court proceedings may be initiated for recovery of the toll and related charges as a simple contract debt.
Section 5 gives toll operators access to the national vehicle and driver file to facilitate the collection of tolls and default tolls from users who are outside the electronic payment system. It also imposes certain responsibilities on leasing and hire companies to provide information about cars they have leased or hired out.
Section 6 updates the legislative references to local government bodies in section 13 of the Roads Act 1993 in light of the changes in local government legislation that have taken place since that Act was enacted.
Section 7 relates to the Functions of the National Roads Authority. It amends section 19 of the Roads Act 1993, which specifies detailed functions of the National Roads Authority including preparing or arranging for the preparations of designs, maintenance programmes and schemes for traffic signs, securing the carrying out of works, allocating grants, specifying standards and carrying out or assisting research. The section replaces the existing section 19(1) of the Roads Act 1993. The majority of the provisions are the same as the section it replaces but the main change is that the NRA is now given specific powers to provide service and rest areas on the national road network.
It is important to emphasise that no part of the Bill affects the fundamental way in which the national roads programme is to be delivered, as envisaged in the Roads Act 1993. The excellent work we are seeing and will continue to see in the national roads programme under Transport 21 results from the partnership ethos that has developed over many years between the NRA and the local authorities throughout the country.
Section 8 of the Bill deals with the issue of motorway designation. A central part of the national roads programme and the national development plan is the development, to motorway or high-quality dual carriageway standard, of the five major inter-urban routes linking Dublin to Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and the Border. Excellent progress continues to be made on the development of these routes. More than 70% have been completed or are in construction.
To date, the development of these routes has been largely on the basis of achieving high-quality dual carriageway standard. However, as the national road-building programme has evolved, the specifications, physical design and layout features of high-quality dual carriageways have developed to the stage where high-quality dual carriageways are now essentially the same as motorways. Nevertheless, while there is now little or no physical difference between the two road types, there are major procedural and practical differences between the two. For example, the speed limits, signage and the nature of traffic and classes of vehicles permitted to use the two road types differ. Most significantly, there are major differences between the access and development controls that apply to the two road types. Development beside and access to motorways are far more stringently controlled than in the case of high-quality dual carriageways.
To protect the substantial investment being made in the national road network and to help prevent premature obsolescence of the network it is proposed in the Bill to provide a ministerial power to make orders declaring certain high-quality dual carriageways to be motorways.
The proposed provision allows the Minister for Transport, under certain circumstances and subject to consultation, to declare an existing high quality dual carriageway or a high quality dual carriageway in construction or planning to be a motorway. At present, a road can only legally be a motorway if it has gone through the planning process under a motorway scheme. This section of the Bill will create a straightforward alternative statutory procedure, subject to appropriate checks and balances, for a high quality dual carriageway to be declared a motorway. The provision is time limited in that only existing high quality dual carriageways or those in the statutory planning process on the date of passage of the Act may be declared to be motorways under the provision. This will mean that the currency of this provision will probably end some time next year. In effect, this means that the provision covers in the main all of the major interurban routes which are already almost three quarters complete or in construction and which are due for completion under Transport 21 by 2010.
Before issuing a declaration under this provision, the Minister must arrange for a public consultation process and he or she is also obliged to consider any observations or objections that result from that process. On the advice of the Office of the Attorney General, the proposed public consultation procedure is similar to that currently provided for motorway schemes under section 48 of the Roads Act 1993. There are some concerns about restrictive approaches to development along national secondary roads and non-national roads. I have therefore arranged for my Department, in consultation with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to examine the question of further developing the guidance material which has issued to the NRA and local authorities with a view to providing for improved flexibility in the development proposals affecting other lightly trafficked routes.
Sections 9 and 10 of the Bill make a number of amendments to the Roads Act 1993 to facilitate the provision of service and rest areas on the national road network. Ireland's national road network has been transformed almost beyond all recognition over the last decade. A consequence of the substantial development of long lengths of motorways and high quality dual carriageways is that there is an increasing need for facilities to cater for road users who wish to rest during their journeys and/or avail of fuel, sanitary and refreshment facilities.
Mindful of this, my colleague, the former Minister for Transport, asked the NRA to review its policy in this area last year. The NRA subsequently published its policy document on service and rest areas on the national road network in July of last year. To address the growing need for service and rest areas the NRA intends to provide service areas offering a full range of services, including retail services, at intervals of approximately 50 to 60 kms and rest areas, parking and sanitary facilities only, at intervals of approximately 25 to 30 kms. These facilities will be located both on-line and at or close to existing interchanges.
It is worth remembering that the timely development of these areas will make a valued contribution to improving the safety of the road network. This will be true for all road users but particularly so for road hauliers who tend to drive for longer sustained periods than most other road users. The rest areas that will be constructed on the network will also make it easier for them to comply with EU rules on driving times and rest periods.
The NRA has recently concluded an extensive investigation to identify the optimum locations for on-line service and rest areas. The exercise identified locations for up to 12 service areas and 11 rest areas on the major inter-urban routes, M1, M4/N4, N6, M7/N7, N8, N9, as well as the N6/N18 and N11 routes. The Roads Act 1993 does not give the NRA explicit powers to provide these rest and service areas on the existing motorway and dual carriageway networks. The provisions in this Bill address this deficiency and will greatly facilitate the NRA and road authorities in arranging for the provision of service areas on motorways and dual carriageways. The amendments I propose in this Bill will allow the NRA to drive the planning and development of these service and rest areas. Once constructed it is intended the facilities will be operated by way of a PPP arrangement.
Section 11 of the Bill refers to the various amendments to the Roads Act 1993 that are being made in the Schedule to the Bill. I will refer to some of these later.
Section 12 addresses the issue of parking congestion experienced on public roads in the environs of sports stadia and such venues on event days. It amends the Road Traffic Act 1994 to allow local councils to deal with the matter through the making of by-laws together with some consequential and connected amendments.
Section 13 of the Bill introduces a number of amendments to provisions of the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. The initiatives proposed reflect on issues raised with the Department by the Commission for Taxi Regulation and are aimed at building on the programmes already being implemented by the commission to promote the development of quality services by all of those engaged in the operation of small public service vehicles.
In that general context, the proposal to amend section 34 of the 2003 Act provides for the introduction of a licensing control regime for dispatch operators who operate a business for taking bookings for taxis, hackneys and limousines. Dispatch operators play a key role in the delivery of services especially to those who cannot avail of on-street services, such as those available from taxi ranks.
Since the passage of the 2003 Act, the commission has pursued a programme of regulatory reform that has seen the realisation of a significant range of changes from the previous code. Against that background, I see no reason to continue with the general requirement for ministerial consent to future regulatory changes that the commission wishes to pursue.
Accordingly, section 13 proposes that the requirement for ministerial consent for the making of certain regulations, or ministerial consultation, in sections 34, 38, 46 and 52 of the 2003 Act be removed. This proposal will greatly enhance the independent status of the commission. However, all orders or regulations made by the commission under the Act will continue to be subject to the requirement to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas after they are made, in accordance with section 3 of the 2003 Act.
In addition to an amendment to facilitate the extension of the fixed charge system to offences under regulations made under section 39 of the 2003 Act, the House will also note this section provides for the extension to hackneys and limousines of the enabling powers available to the commission in respect of taxi fares. This initiative is an enabling provision and does not necessarily herald the adoption of fare controls for hackney and limousine operations in the near future.
Finally, the section proposes that the maximum fines for certain of the offences established under the 2003 Act should be increased. I am promoting this change for the immediate purpose of bringing the maximum fines more into line with the current maximum fines applicable to summary convictions that have been established in legislation since the passage of the 2003 Act.
Section 14 of the Bill is a standard provision regarding the short and collective citation of the Bill.
The Schedule to the Bill contains a number of miscellaneous provisions. Many of these amendments are consequential on new or changed legislation enacted after 1993.
The non-consequential amendments contained in the Schedule to the Act are of a technical nature and their purpose is to make it easier for the NRA to better manage and administer the national roads programme. Many of the others are simple updates of references in the Roads Act 1993 to other legislation that has changed since that Act was passed. Because of their nature I will not dwell too long on any of them but some are worthy of greater explanation.
Section 63 of the Roads Act 1993 allows the NRA to make toll agreements with private investors. Two amendments are being made to this section. The first ensures that toll agreements can prescribe the way in which tolls are to be collected. This will explicitly allow for tolling in a barrier-free environment. The second inserts a new subsection (1A) and allows a road authority to enter into different agreements with different persons on the financing, construction, maintenance and operation of toll roads.
The amendments to section 81 of the Roads Act 1993 put in place a penalty and enforcement regime that better reflects the needs of the 21st century. Penalties are strengthened and updated for various offences throughout the Roads Act. The section also reflects the fact that new offences have been created under this Bill in regard to barrier free tolling. In general, fines have been increased from £1,000 to €5,000
Criminal prosecution is a last resort. Every effort will be made to ensure people have the chance to comply fully with the terms of this Act. The vast majority of people will do this without giving it a second thought. However, it is necessary to have the "stick" of criminal prosecution to make it clear that we are serious about enforcing the terms of this important road legislation.
This legislation is essential if barrier-free tolling is to happen in the near future. Once enacted it should allow systems to be put in place on roads like the M50 that will relieve congestion and improve the quality of life for all road users.
The other provisions of the Bill should allow the NRA and its partners to better administer the national roads programme so the very welcome benefits it has been delivering over the last few years can continue at an even greater pace. The dividends that have been reaped in terms of value for money and road safety can be maintained and enhanced. Finally, the substantial investment we have made and will be making in our national road network over the period of Transport 21 can be protected for future generations of road users.
Deputies will appreciate there is a particular urgency which the Government wishes to see applied to the passage of the Bill, in particular to allow for the process of the introduction of barrier-free tolling to begin with certainty and also to allow the commencement of the process for the procurement of service and rest areas on the national road network.
I apologise to Deputies that copies of my speech were unavailable until I had started. I look forward to the co-operation of Members in facilitating the passage of the Bill and I commend it to the House.