Priority Questions.

Rural Transport Services.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

48 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport his plans to improve public transport in communities outside Dublin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21639/09]

In the past ten years the capacity and quality of bus and rail services provided by Iarnród Éireann and Bus Éireann have increased in line with high levels of capital and current funding. The majority of track and signalling infrastructure on the regional rail network has been upgraded, and the rolling stock fleet has been completely renewed. Station facilities and accessibility have been greatly improved and more frequent services have been introduced on most routes. Some formerly closed lines in the south and west are now being reopened as part of the Government's Transport 21 capital investment programme for rail. In particular, in the current year, the Midleton to Cork commuter line and the first phase of the western rail corridor between Ennis and Athenry will be reopened. Bus Éireann has expanded its commercial expressway services, increased public service obligation services and modernised its fleet throughout the country with the purchase of new buses, including the 239 new Exchequer-funded buses in 2007 and 2008.

The improvement in CIE services in the past ten years has been complemented by growing participation of private bus operators in the provision of scheduled bus services throughout the country. Bus services in rural areas also benefited from the major increase in investment in the rural transport programme, RTP, which addresses social exclusion in rural areas arising from unmet public transport needs. I am pleased to say the RTP is now operational in every county in Ireland.

Building on these achievements, Smarter Travel, which I published in February 2009, provides a strategic framework for the further development of public transport services throughout the country. Further improvement of public transport services in the provincial cities will be also guided by the outcome of the major land use and transport studies currently being funded by my Department. The provision of public transport generally outside the greater Dublin area will also be supported by a new legislative framework which will be promoted through the proposed public transport regulation Bill, the general scheme of which was approved by Government in January 2009. The Bill will contain proposals for a new regime for the licensing of all commercial bus services and contracts for public transport services.

Notwithstanding the Minister's reply, the fact is that in Dublin Bus — even during the boom when capital investment in the industry was at its height — the number of passengers travelling to work by bus was falling. At this moment Bus Éireann is facing cutbacks due to the €30 million reduction in funding from the Department. We have heard that 150 buses may be withdrawn from routes around the country. Cork, for example, will lose 30 buses, Dublin will lose 25, Waterford will lose 14, Galway will lose 15, Dundalk will lose 12, Sligo will lose four, and Tralee will lose four. There is a serious crisis in public transport as a direct result of the Minister's policy.

The Deloitte report made it clear that Bus Éireann is largely efficient in its services. Is it not the case that due to the cutbacks that must be imposed as a result of the Minister's policy, the poor, the old and those who live in economically disadvantaged areas will suffer most?

I do not know what cutbacks the Deputy is talking about. The subvention given to Bus Éireann and CIE companies generally increased this year. In the supplementary budget on 7 April, we had to take €10 million of the increased subvention from the company but we did not do that until we received an assurance from the company that it would be able to find that extra money through sales of property or other means.

The Deputy is wrong to suggest there have been cutbacks. There has been a cut in the number of people using buses, that is part of the economic downturn. The Deputy and his party have often spoken of not wasting public money. Is he suggesting now that Bus Éireann should be running empty buses? That would not be a good use of public funds.

I have the press release here from Bus Éireann that states the company will have to make cutbacks of €30 million in its programme. Part of that is a result of the cuts in the subsidy from the Department while some of it is due to not enough people travelling to work by bus.

The fact is that Green Party policy has not been effective in Government and the Minister is cutting back in the area most valued by the Greens, public transport. The older, the poorer and those in disadvantaged areas who do not have the capacity to buy a car will lose out. Should the Minister not encourage a change in vehicle type? Why not have An Post and Bus Éireann operate a postal delivery and bus service together, using the same vehicle? We need new and radical thinking and we are not getting it from the Minister, all we are getting is cutbacks.

The Deputy is wrong, we have not cut back the subsidy to Bus Éireann, I have told him that.

That is not true.

I explained what is happening to the Deputy a few minutes ago and I am not going to waste Dáil time repeating it. The overall subsidy available to Bus Éireann is as it was. The difficulty faced by CIE is being faced across the country in a range of sectors — a reduction in the number of passengers using the buses leading to a fall in revenue. We have asked Bus Éireann to live within its means as far as it can this year and next year.

Bus Éireann intends to maintain its network, although there may be a reduction in service levels on some routes.

Road Traffic Offences.

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

49 Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Transport his views on the operation of the penalty points system in the context of the latest penalty points figures which show that as many as 192,686 drivers did not have their licences endorsed for committing an offence and in view of the role played by excessive speeding in a significant percentage of road collisions and deaths; whether he has met with Mr. Gay Byrne, chairman of the Road Safety Authority, and Mr. Noel Brett, chief executive, on current serious road safety issues; if he will reform the national vehicle driver file to record and address all motoring misdemeanours committed by drivers on roads here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21243/09]

Under the Road Safety Authority Act 2006 (Conferral of Functions) Order 2006 (SI No. 477 of 2006) the operation of the penalty points was applied. At the end of March 2009 there were 192,686 penalty points events recorded in respect of drivers who did not present an Irish driving licence. Of this total, a foreign licence was presented in 142,588 instances.

The NVDF only contains records of Irish driving licence holders and consequently it can only associate penalty points and other penalties for road traffic offences with the record of a driver with an Irish driving licence. The enforcement of penalties for road traffic offences on foreign-registered drivers is a complex legal and administrative matter and the Department is pursuing this question at European, British-Irish and North-South levels. I will also be proposing in the Road Traffic Bill currently being finalised a number of amendments which should improve some matters for driver records.

Unless motoring offences result in disqualification of the drivers concerned or in the application of penalty points, they cannot be recorded on the national vehicle and driver file. Operation of the penalty points system is a matter for the Road Safety Authority.

Until 21 April, the former Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, had specific responsibility for road safety and in that role he met the chief executive officer and chairman of the RSA on a number of occasions, both formally and informally. My officials meet the chief executive and the RSA's senior management team formally twice a year, but there is also regular contact between the two organisations on the variety of issues of road safety.

The Deputy has made some suggestions on reforming the national vehicle driver file to record and address all motoring misdemeanours committed by drivers in this jurisdiction. The position is that where a person incurs penalty points and where details of Irish driving licences are not available, the data are stored on the file on the basis of individual instances.

No benefit would be derived from the recording of all motoring misdemeanours generally and in any event their recording would be likely to infringe the Data Protection Acts.

I am seeking the protection of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle about questions. I have a substantial file of questions here that the Minister has refused to answer relating to agencies that fall within the remit of his Department. If the courts or the justice system were involved, the Minister also refused to answer.

We cannot deal with them now but the Committee on Procedure and Privileges has discussed the answering of parliamentary questions so the Deputy might bring these matters to the attention of that body.

This is a serious situation and I appreciate the help of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Does the Minister agree the appalling number of collisions and fatalities this year is a cause for dismay? There have been 107 fatal collisions so far this year, as against 109 last year. This is the first year for a number of years that we are slipping back on our road safety targets. The last three months, March, April and May 2009, have seen higher numbers of horrific fatalities than the comparable time last year.

Does the Minister agree with the chairman of the Road Safety Authority when he castigates him? Is it not remarkable that Mr. Gay Byrne finds it necessary to castigate the Minister of the Department he serves because of a cut back of €2.3 million in the advertising budget? The advertisements last year played a huge role in diminishing road casualties but this year we are cutting back on the advertising budget. Mr. Byrne has said the Minister suffers from the awful sin of complacency. Is that not true? The Minister is complacent while casualties and fatalities are rising.

The Deputy is silent when the number of fatalities decreases.

No, I am not. I commended the Minister last year. This is an all-party issue.

Let us keep it as an all-party issue then and not make political statements about it. As the Deputy knows, we have all had this experience at various times. There will be a decline in fatalities for a number of months then there will be a sudden increase in incidents.

The Deputy is right, the three months just past were worse than the same three months last year. Overall, fatalities are down by two up to this date. There is a slight improvement but I am disappointed by the figures we have seen in the last three months. I do not have any magic wand to rewind the clock but it has been serious. We started the year well, with a significant decrease, and we are still down two fatalities overall.

It is important, particularly coming up to a bank holiday, that we get the message across again. It is a matter of enforcement.

The other key element of the question concerns penalty points. The Minister has stated 200,000 drivers out of 600,000 who were guilty of penalty points offences escaped. Some 31% were not fined or had points imposed on their licences. Is that not appalling? The public thinks it is ridiculous and it makes the penalty points system a farce. The Minister is talking about reforming the vehicle driver file and negotiating with Britain and the EU. Will he just do it?

As I explained to the Deputy, of the 192,000 cases for which penalty points could not be recorded, 142,588 were foreign drivers.

Public Transport.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

50 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport his views on public transport cutbacks since 2007; the percentage decrease year on year for the public transport investment programme since 2007; the budget reductions implemented via Supplementary Estimates since 2007; the discussions that he has had with other Departments regarding the projects that he will now prioritise in view of the changed economic circumstances; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21640/09]

Significant investment in public transport has been undertaken in recent years which has facilitated major improvements in the safety of our transport systems and increased capacity on bus and rail networks. Work on three new Luas lines is currently under way as is work on the new commuter line in Cork, the first phase of the western rail corridor and the first phase of the Navan rail line from Clonsilla to Dunboyne. More than €500 million has been invested in railway safety under the second railway safety programme. Some €154 million has been spent on traffic management in the past three years and more than 500 new buses have been purchased for Dublin, provincial city and regional bus fleets. Significant progress is also continuing in the planning of major projects. The oral hearing on metro north commenced in April and Irish Rail is on target to lodge a railway order application for the DART underground later this year.

Transport 21 will continue to provide the guiding strategic framework for Government investment in public transport up to 2015. However, in light of the changed economic circumstances, it was necessary to review investment priorities across all Departments, including mine, and these priorities have been discussed with Department of Finance. The Exchequer allocation for public transport this year is €628 million plus a carryover of €40.5 million from last year. This will exceed the 2007 outturn of €640 million by 4%. In the current difficult financial circumstances, this is a major achievement.

As I have stated on previous occasions, the provision of increased capacity will be the key consideration in determining investment priorities. Given their potential to greatly increase capacity on the public transport network, metro north and the DART underground are key projects. Investment in increased bus capacity and bus priority measures are also priorities. The bus-related investment will be guided by the Deloitte cost and efficiency review of the CIE bus companies and the availability of current funding for public service obligations.

The selection of projects and programmes will be also guided by the overarching priorities set out by the Minister for Finance for capital investment, namely, strengthening the productive capacity of the economy and sustaining employment. Further major Transport 21 capital projects currently at the planning and design stage will be released for construction as soon as they are through statutory procedures and the available financial resources permit, consistent with the priorities I have outlined.

The public transport investment programme has been cut by 29% in the Minister's budget this year compared to last year. That is a reduction of €262 million. The Green Party put much emphasis on public transport and the Minister has done his best, however they have lost the budget battle at Cabinet. The Minister is attacking very important and constructive projects which are needed in the public transport investment programme. In his reply the Minister said the decisions are with the Minister for Finance. Can he outline what decisions have been already made on reductions in these transport investment programmes with particular reference to metro west and the western rail corridor, and any other issues he may have on his file?

As I said to the Deputy, no such decisions have been taken. Transport 21 remains the framework for what we want to achieve. I have made it clear here and outside this House that I intend to bring every project I can right through to the stage where they go to tender and money is required. At that stage the final decisions will be made on what projects go ahead based on an economic appraisal of them. The public transport projects in planning, and which will be in planning over the next 12 months, include metro north, Navan phase two, DART underground, the Maynooth line development, which is a series of resignalling and removal of level crossing, the RTPI, rail traffic passenger information, in Dublin, the Luas line BXD and metro west. The feasibility studies for the various transport studies in the provincial cities and towns will go ahead. GDA traffic management projects are going ahead. We are talking about providing two additional green routes in Cork, two green routes plus phase one of a third in Limerick city and county, one bus lane in Limerick city and two sectors of the bus lane in Galway city, and northern and southern bus lanes in Claregalway are already completed.

My question related to what is not being proceeded with. We know those projects are proceeding but what is not going ahead? When one takes €262 million from the programme there must be cutbacks. The Minister says he cannot give them here, but the Green Party route to power, getting into bed with Fianna Fáil, has proved ineffective in the context of Green policies on increased public transport, which the Minister and the Green Party have failed to provide.

As I said to the Deputy on a number of occasions and just a few minutes ago, all the public transport projects in Transport 21 are being advanced this year.

Where will the cutbacks be? Where will they fall?

As I have tried to explain to the Deputy on a number of occasions, not all the roads or public transport budgets could be spent because of the number of projects still in planning. The crunch years for public transport projects and the decisions on whether they will go ahead will be next year and the year after.

Road Safety.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

51 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport his views on whether the reduction in the local and regional road maintenance budget will have a negative effect on road safety; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21641/09]

State road grants totalling €447.7 million were allocated to local authorities on 14 April for the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads. These grants, which supplement expenditure by local authorities from their own resources, represent a very significant investment at a time when public finances are under severe pressure. The capital budget for improvement works this year is €321.5 million. This will fund 241 separate improvement projects at various stages of planning, design and construction, as well as 1,700 km of road reconstruction and improvement under the restoration improvement programme.

My Department also finances safety works at high accident locations on the regional and local road network. Grants were allocated to local authorities in April to finance measures at 257 locations. There was no reduction in the April supplementary budget in the provision for maintenance works, and grants of €126 million were allocated to local authorities. The bulk of this, €85 million, is being invested in the restoration maintenance programme and I fully expect to see an increase in surface dressing output achieved by local authorities under this programme this year compared with 2008. Safety is a fundamental consideration in the improvement and maintenance of our road network and this high level of investment is continuing to deliver a significant road safety dividend.

Earlier this year we were, thankfully, 20 deaths down on last year. While every death in a road accident is appalling and regrettable, 70% of all fatal accidents occur on country roads. The Department of Transport's website states that these roads are the economic arteries of local communities, and we all agree. Local and regional roads account for more than 94% of the Irish road network. The Minister has cut €150 million from that network's funding, ranging from Cork to Donegal. The Minister cut €17 million from Cork's local roads fund, €9.7 million from Donegal and €8.8 million from Kildare. If we are serious about safety on our roads and reducing our road deaths, with 70% of all deaths on local roads, how can the Minister stand over cutbacks of €150 million, which mean dangerous bends are not being removed? Even Ministers must know about the serious and significant crumbling of our road structure throughout the country. County councillors know about it because they have no funding for it. What will the Minister do about it?

As I said to the Deputy, the allocation for safety to local authorities has not been touched. It is the same as it was last year. Works will take place in 257 different locations across all the local authorities this year. Work has already taken place in approximately 1,700 or 1,800 danger spots, or accident blackspots as we used to call them.

The Deputy wants to have it every way. His party suggested we cut services and the amounts being spent by €2.5 billion prior to April's budget. I would not have had any road funding for local authorities if I had gone——

We were talking about cutbacks in Government waste, including on FÁS, the HSE and in Departments. We were not talking about what the Minister is doing. He is cutting back on safety and he cannot avoid the issue. If road potholes cannot be filled and if road surfaces are crumbling in every county, town and village, the Minister is making these roads extremely unsafe and dangerous by removing the funding to local government, which it expected. He has failed in his duty of care in regard to road safety. That is a damning indictment of him and his Department.

The Deputy is talking absolute nonsense again. I have made it quite clear to him that portion of the local authorities' allocation of €126 million, which is used for road surface dressing, maintenance, repair and restoration, has not been touched this year.

In the absence of Deputy McEntee, that concludes priority questions.

Question No. 52 lapsed.