I welcome the opportunity to speak on this long-awaited Bill. For a number of years, the absence of a body to pull together the diverse and often competing providers of infrastructure, public transport, traffic management and policing has been a major source of frustration to everybody who lives or does business in Dublin. Public representatives from Dublin cannot but be obsessed about the traffic congestion that has been part of our lives for so many years. We all recognise the need to bring together these agencies to provide a co-ordinated, integrated and coherent public transport plan which is seamlessly delivered, and to that extent I welcome the publication of this Bill.
We have waited many years for this authority and the present Bill represents the third attempt to establish a body that would provide coherence to transport in Dublin. The first body was abolished in 1987 by the then Fianna Fáil Government. That was followed by the Dublin transportation initiative, which led to the establishment 15 years ago of the Dublin Transportation Office. While most of the expertise and evidence based policy formulation in the transport area resides in that body, it never fulfilled the role for which it was originally envisaged. It simply did not have the necessary powers and so remained a policy body, albeit one that is widely respected for the independence and objectivity of its views and public utterances, even when observers disagree with them.
This failure to establish a body to co-ordinate traffic has had a heavy price and Dublin residents, workers and businesses have suffered. The inability to control congestion has impacted significantly on the rising cost of doing business in the country's capital and in no small way contributed to our current economic woes. There has been no co-ordination in the planning or delivery of the projects which were commenced. Single projects were poorly co-ordinated and often overlapped. The absence of a body to drive delivery of projects resulted in their failure in many cases. Infighting, jealousy, self-interest, turf wars and futile competition between the agencies responsible for Dublin traffic ensured zero progress and little integration or co-operation. It is vital that the new authority does not depend on mere moral suasion, which does not work when self interest is at stake. As a member of the advisory body to the DTO and a former local authority representative, I witnessed with despair the competition that took place between various providers and agencies and the turf wars whose sole victims were the travelling public. Lack of agreement meant we could not have integrated ticketing or private buses and that buses and Luas could not run on the same road. There has been an absence of common purpose between the agencies and they have failed to recognise their role in serving the public. It was as if they were self serving entities. This Bill attempts to create unity of purpose but a common logo is not enough to make the agencies co-operate. Strong powers are needed to bring them together, kicking and screaming if necessary, to pursue the public good. Perhaps it is human nature that the private interests of the various players are put before the public interest but it is the Government's responsibility to tip the balance in favour of the public.
For many years I have called for the establishment of this authority, so I am disappointed that I have to make two major criticisms of the proposals before us, namely, the Minister for Transport's capitulation on the introduction of competition to the Dublin bus market and the proposed authority's lack of accountability to the Dáil.
Once this body is established, it will become another HSE in terms of its lack of accountability. It should be inconceivable to Deputies, particularly those who represent the greater Dublin area, that after this Bill is enacted we will never be able to have a question answered on Dublin Bus, metro, Luas, DART or any other transport project, despite the fact that we are going to spend billions of euro on projects which will dominate our streets for many years to come. We will be unable to get an answer to parliamentary questions or raise these issues in the Dáil. I simply cannot vote for such a proposal. Much as I want to see a Dublin transportation authority, it has to be accountable. A body cannot spend huge sums or make vital decisions on behalf of 40% of the country's population without effective reporting structures and accountability for its policy and performance.
The Minister has suggested the establishment of an advisory body to introduce an element of accountability. I have been a member of advisory bodies and have seen them in action. As a member of the Dublin transportation advisory body, I found it to be an absolute farce. The agencies came, listened to what the director had to say and then squabbled with each other. It was not democratic and it certainly did not improve accountability. Any public representative who cares about the future of Dublin and its transport system or has an interest in seeing the system improved could not support an agency possessing this kind of power in the absence of accountability before the Dáil.
My second disappointment concerns the future of the bus service. One of the great hopes we have had for this body was that it would be the mechanism to regulate bus competition and award contracts to competing operators. It is an outrage that the Minister has capitulated on this matter. The only interest he is serving is that of Dublin Bus and its workers. I understand that the job of Dublin Bus and its unions is to protect workers but it is the Minister's job to protect members of the public who need to get to work in the morning. Irrespective of whether one has a private car, one's interest is best served by the improved capacity and services that only competition can bring. Vesting a regulatory function in the authority would ensure that competition did not become counterproductive or a free-for-all, yet the Minister has reneged on this.
He has promised to reform the 1932 Act but even if he follows through on his word he will merely confirm the primacy of Dublin Bus and its ownership of all existing routes. Subsidies to the company have substantially increased in recent years even though its daily carrying figures are static. Regulated bus competition has been promised by three successive Ministers and the previous Minister even promised 200 buses for the private sector, as well as subventions for uneconomic routes. These commitments seem to have disappeared into the ether of the last election.
The Minister made much of the inclusion in the legislation of EU public service obligations and he promised to introduce public service contracts whereby subventions would be linked to performance. However, these contracts are, if not meaningless, certainly far less effective when there is no real sanction for failure to perform. If a service provider does not perform to the required standard and if buses are not provided with the frequency and regularity required, there should at least be a threat that its contract will be discontinued and given to another provider. In the absence of such a sanction, there is no incentive to perform. The worst that can happen is that Dublin Bus will receive a lower subvention the following year. Who will suffer then? The only possible outcome will be the provision of an even worse service for the public.
The public's interests come behind those of the agency charged with providing the service. At the very least, the Dublin transport authority should be enabled to source alternative providers in circumstances where the contract performance on the part of Dublin Bus is sub-optimal. This is a still a long way from competitive public tendering but at least the type of threat to which I refer might make some difference in the context of the standard of service to the public.
Other areas have been neglected in the Bill, including the need for some kind of representation on the board or some kind of input from bodies such as Dublin Port and the Dublin Airport Authority. These are both vital pieces of infrastructure generating huge quantities of traffic and both fundamentally important to the Dublin and indeed the national economy. Their requirements and their view points should form part not only of the strategy, but of the implementation plans.
I support and welcome many aspects of the Bill. I refer, for example, to the genuine attempt to ensure co-ordination among the national spatial strategy, county development plans, local development plans and the authority's own plans. This is absolutely crucial in the long term if we are to achieve the kind of co-ordination and sustainability to which we aspire. However, it remains to be seen whether the measures will actually work. The Minister will be obliged to monitor progress and he should not be slow to intervene if there is clear conflict and inconsistency among the various plans. In saying this, I am conscious that previous Ministers did not move to ensure consistency between the national spatial strategy and county development plans. We will all pay for that failure in the future.
I welcome the decision to integrate the functions of the Commission for Taxi Regulation into the new body. The taxi industry in the Dublin area is clearly part of the overall transport network and it should be regulated by the authority. A strong central body is required to deal with the taxi industry, particularly in the aftermath of suggestions that there is an over-supply of taxis in the city. It should, however, be clear to the authority that if such an over-supply exists, it is related to the high fares that can be commanded by those in the industry. There is an obvious solution in this regard. The primary interest of the regulator must be the consumer and not the provider of the service.
The correct approach is being taken by the Minister in leaving the CIE group, Dublin Bus, Iarnród Éireann and the RPA as independent agencies. On the other hand, the Dublin Transportation Office is to be subsumed into the new authority. The DTO possesses a vast amount of experience and expertise in transport modelling and empiricism. The DTO can provide validity to the agencies projects because it is respected as the only independent body with that kind of expertise in analysis. As we make a new beginning, it is important to ensure that this expertise is not dissipated. As a policy body, the DTO should be subsumed into the new authority and should act as a regulator in respect of independent service providers such as the RPA and Dublin Bus.
What is not clear is the new authority's strategic plan and its implementation plans in respect of projects that have already been announced under Transport 21. Will the promised projects relating to Transport 21 to be re-evaluated, re-prioritised, dropped altogether or increased in number? As activity in the construction industry begins to flag, particularly in the area of housing development, it is vital to sustain capital investment. These badly needed transport projects are the ideal vehicle to minimise the impact of the reduction in house-building activity. Activity in this area will help to retain vital workers and deliver valuable and long overdue projects.
I wish to be parochial by mentioning one of the projects which appears to have been dropped from the original proposals in A Platform for Change to extend Luas to the Rathfarnham area. There is a gap in the planned transport network which encompasses the entire area between Dundrum and Firhouse-Knocklyon. If one looks at a map, it is obvious that this is the only area which will not be serviced. A feasibility study was promised during a previous election campaign. However, this was only carried out in respect of the route which it had already been decided was not viable. It appears, as expected, that the route is still not viable, particularly because there is too much congestion on the streets in the area. It is farcical that this excuse is being given. The fact that there is traffic congestion indicates an urgent need for the provision of some link to the transport network. This should not prove to be beyond human ingenuity.
The matter to which I refer should be reconsidered. Due to the narrowness of the streets and the congestion that exists, it is impossible to provide a decent bus service. Regardless of the number of buses provided, the road simply cannot take them. I ask that the new authority examine this matter at an early stage.
There are several vital issues to which consideration must be given at an early stage. Effectively, these issues have proven to be too hot to handle for the existing agencies and the Government. Transport 21 is, in effect, a list of unintegrated projects and that sort of decision making must stop. It was decision making of this nature that gave us the port tunnel, which took on a life of its own and proceeded even after the decision to drop its continuation into an eastern bypass of the city. It is almost evitable that the latter will proceed at some stage; otherwise, we will have built a tunnel that effectively runs into a cul de sac. No matter how one describes it, this has proven to be the case. The port tunnel is totally under-utilised, with spare capacity at all times of the day and night. This is so because there is a need for demand management due to the fact that the tunnel runs into the cul de sac to which I refer in Dublin Port.
It is not a defence to say that projects of this nature are not built to reach full capacity on day one. This project will never reach full capacity, particularly with its current configuration and the pricing regime relating to it. I am not saying that the city would be better off without the tunnel. The city might, however, have been better off if a different solution had been put forward, particularly when the decision had been made to drop the eastern bypass. That is all history. A promise was made during the 1997 election campaign to the effect that the eastern bypass was off the agenda. The latter no longer appears to be the case and in the past seven years no fewer than three feasibility studies were carried out in respect of this matter. However, no one has grasped the nettle and decided what will happen. Is the bypass to proceed? Someone must make a decision in that regard.
The decision to which I refer must be made in the context of other projects relating to the south side of the city. If, for example, an incinerator is to be built at Ringsend, how will it be serviced? The two major bailing stations for the region are also located on the south side of the city and these will have to be moved to Ringsend if the incinerator is built. Also relevant is the possibility that Dublin Port will be moved. It defies belief that the Government proceeded to spend almost €1 billion on the construction of a tunnel to serve a port that might be relocated.
These decisions to which I refer and plans for their implementation must be made with speed and in the context of an overall and coherent transport strategy for Dublin. Discussion about the building of alternative bridges to facilitate metro work has come much too late. I have been speaking about this matter in the House and outside for many years. The division of the city into its north-side and south-side areas has been the subject of many jokes. However, this has been made a reality by the inability or refusal on the part of the Dublin City Council to provide additional bridges over the River Liffey. The Macken Street bridge, which is finally under construction, should have been completed ten years ago. What prospect is there of additional bridges, temporary or otherwise, being in place to facilitate metro work or the removal of all traffic from O'Connell St.? There is also the question of whether the metro will be completed within our lifetimes.
It will be the job of the new authority to drive the projects to which I refer. It must be given the power to force local authorities, in the context of projects with which they are proceeding, to facilitate projects undertaken by other agencies — such as metro or Luas — regardless of whether they want or approve of them.
One of the criticisms I would level at the Bill as it stands is that the DTA does not appear to have the power to direct the local authorities to perform. While reference is made to transport service providers being required to perform to a certain standard, a similar requirement is not being put in place in respect of local authorities. Such a requirement is essential. Bridges and road connections are a vital part of the transport system's infrastructure.
There are other matters which have been neglected in the Bill. There is a need for representation on the new authority from the Dublin Port Company and the Dublin Airport Authority. I do not know if those responsible for the port or the airport have been consulted in respect of the Bill. However, these are vital items of infrastructure and they are responsible for generating huge volumes of traffic. Both are fundamentally important to Dublin and the national economy. The points of view of the representatives of both bodies to which I refer should form not only part of the strategy, but also the ongoing implementation plans.
The four Dublin local authorities and the three outer counties which form the greater Dublin area are now significant traffic destinations as well as traffic generators. The office of the director of traffic, which has been based in Dublin City Council, should be subsumed into the new authority. This office undoubtedly has been very effective in managing traffic in the city, although this has been at the expense of the rest of the region. It has introduced a system of queuing at the boundary which has not helped traffic in the rest of the greater Dublin area. From now on, the greater Dublin area must be treated as a coherent whole and not simply as a city centre with traffic problems.
The remit of the traffic director must include the greater Dublin area operating not from one local authority base, but the new body in the interests of the entire area. If we were to be honest about the traffic problems of the city centre, they are much less than those of the suburbs now.
It is not mentioned in the legislation but bodies such as the quality bus network office may be subsumed as part of the DTA. It certainly should come under the remit of the new body.
I may find it impossible to support something I have long called for simply because of its lack of accountability to the Dáil. In all honesty, no Dublin representative can vote for a HSE for transport, finding themselves with their hands tied behind their backs and never again being able to raise an issue concerning the metro, Luas or Dublin Bus in this House, or have any kind of a debate or answer to a question.