This Bill represents an important step in ensuring that we in Ireland can implement the most modern and efficient systems for levying tolls on our national roads. It also puts forward measures that should further improve the efficient and cost-effective delivery of the national roads programme within 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 against the non-payment of tolls. The Bill also provides for the redesignation of certain high-quality dual carriageways as motorways; the provision of service and rest areas on the national road network; some technical amendments regarding various sections of the Roads Act 1993; and several amendments to the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. I regard its enactment before the dissolution of the Dáil and Seanad as essential.
Before I speak on the purpose of each major section, it is important to put the Bill into its proper strategic context. The Bill is about ensuring the substantial investment the Government is making in the nation's motorways and national roads delivers real and sustainable benefits to our citizens. The investment in our national roads, including the M50, is guided by the principles set down in Transport 21 and the national development plan. It is therefore worthwhile to spend a little time setting out the background of why this Bill is important and giving Members a clear context of where the legislation, relatively brief as it is, fits into the overall transport investment picture.
I will therefore speak about developments on Dublin's M50, including the buy-out of the West Link concession; the national roads programme; and national roads under Transport 21. I will then speak about each of the main sections of the Bill before making some concluding remarks.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to facilitate the introduction of free-flow tolling on the M50. Barrier-free tolling is the centrepiece of the Bill. However, that in itself is not a panacea for the traffic problems experienced daily by commuters using the M50 and living in Dublin and its hinterlands. The lifting of the barriers is only one part of the Government's M50 strategy. The Government and the National Roads Authority, NRA, are fully committed to improving the level of service provided to motorists on the M50 and believe it will be best achieved through the M50 upgrade, including the upgrade of the interchanges, coupled with the move to barrier-free tolling.
I would like to take the opportunity to inform the Seanad of the progress that we have made and are making on the M50. The M50 upgrade project involves the widening of around 32 km of motorway from two to three lanes in each direction, with a fourth auxiliary lane in places, from the M50-M1 interchange near Dublin Airport through to the Sandyford interchange. Critically, it also involves the upgrade of ten junctions along its length. I have said previously that there is no quick fix for congestion on the M50. However, when put in place, those three elements — barrier-free tolling, widening of the carriageway and the upgrading of the junctions — will deliver a very significant improvement in the quality of the service on the M50.
The total cost of the M50 upgrade is approximately €1 billion, and it is being undertaken in three phases. Phase 1 comprises the widening of the carriageway between the N4 — Galway Road roundabout — and Ballymount interchanges and the upgrading of the N4, N7 and Ballymount interchanges. Work has commenced and is expected to have been completed by the middle of 2008. Phase 2 comprises the widening of 24 km of the M50, other than the West Link section between the N3 and N4 junctions, and the upgrade of a further seven interchanges. The NRA aims to award the contract for phase 2 in the middle of 2007 and expects construction to be completed in 2010.
Phase 3 comprises the widening of the West Link section between the N3 and N4 junctions, which is expected to commence very shortly and be completed by the middle of 2008. Once complete, the upgrade will bring significant benefits, as it will expand the capacity of the M50 to deal with 50% more traffic than at present; improve average peak-hour speeds; reduce traffic congestion on the radial routes of N3, N4 and N7; and improve traffic flow on the entire Dublin road network.
All the agencies, including South Dublin County Council, Dublin City Council, the National Roads Authority and the Garda are co-operating very closely to ensure everything possible is done to mitigate the impact of the upgrade work on traffic flows on the M50. I am satisfied no effort is being spared by those responsible for traffic management and law enforcement to alleviate the problems on the M50 as far as possible, and I thank them for their efforts.
I am confident that, with the M50 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 shortly describe in more detail, is in place.
Another important step in resolving congestion on the M50 is the decision to remove NTR's tolling concession on the West Link. For commercial and strategic reasons, the NRA, with my agreement as Minister, decided last year to end the arrangement with National Toll Roads under a 1987 agreement for the collection of tolls on the West Link up to 2020. Discussions have been ongoing for some months between the NRA and NTR about the details of its removal from the West Link. NTR must be compensated in line with the 1987 agreement, which is a binding contract. However, the compensation arrangement will not leave taxpayers any worse off than they would have been had the agreement been allowed to run until 2020. As Members will hear when I expand on the topic, they will be better off. The decision to remove NTR was taken to allow the NRA to develop and manage the M50 to provide the best possible service to motorists.
Ending the relationship with NTR now, rather than waiting until 2020, has significant advantages. It will allow the removal in 2008 of the toll plaza on the West Link and its replacement by a barrier-free tolling arrangement along the same stretch of motorway. The introduction of barrier-free tolling will coincide with the completion of the upgrade of the M50 section between the Ballymount and N4 interchanges. From the middle of 2008, the NRA will be free to introduce measures to address the congestion difficulties on the M50. The middle of 2008 represents the earliest point by which the barrier-free system and equipment can be designed, built, tested and commissioned. By removing NTR now rather than in 2020, the State, not NTR, will be the beneficiary of the increased toll revenue as a result of the increase in traffic volumes following the upgrade.
Senators will no doubt be pleased to hear the negotiations should be concluded very shortly. The general terms of the agreement have been in the public domain for a few weeks and I can confirm that the intention is to pay an annual amount of €50 million plus CPI to NTR until 2020. I re-emphasise that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is a good deal for the Government and the taxpayer. We are not paying over the odds and the benefits it gives us are worth the expense involved. The toll revenue from the barrier-free toll will be used to fund the compensation to NTR as well as contributing towards the funding of phases 2 and 3 of the M50 upgrade, and the cost of introducing barrier-free tolling. The overall upgrade is expected to cost in the order of €1 billion.
The significant ongoing developments and plans for the M50 must be placed in their proper strategic context. That context is, first, the national roads programme and, at a higher level, the Government's blueprint for transport investment over the next decade, Transport 21. I will now talk briefly about both of these programmes.
Recently, the Government published a visionary national development plan which will have a far-reaching positive impact across the economy and society. In the national development plan, the Government explicitly reaffirms its commitment to the delivery of the Transport 21 investment programme. The only significant change proposed is to bring forward from later in the programme into 2008, 2009 and 2010 a total expenditure of €400 million which will be used primarily to accelerate work on the Galway to Limerick section of the Atlantic road corridor linking the gateways from Letterkenny to Waterford. This is concrete evidence of the Government's support for the national spatial strategy and also reflects the progress on advance planning being made by the National Roads Authority, NRA.
The NDP builds on Transport 21 and confirms our commitment to seek to address the investment now necessary to maintain national competitiveness within a sustainable economic and budgetary framework. Transport 21 is the strategic framework underpinning all road investment in Ireland over the next decade. In preparing Transport 21 in late 2005, one of the first tasks was to consider the implications of the considerable economic and social changes that have occurred in Ireland over the past ten years. As Senators will be aware, residential and commuting patterns in Ireland have changed significantly since the mid-1990s. The reasons for this are varied. They include the growth of the economy, the overall increase in population, especially in the hinterland areas around our cities, the growth in employment and increasing car ownership and usage.
It is worth highlighting some of the data to illustrate the changes that have occurred. For example, since 1995, the population has grown by 14% to more than 4.1 million. There are now 500,000 more people living in Ireland than was the case in 1995. The number of new houses being built each year has increased from approximately 30,000 in 1995 to around 77,000 currently, with a significant proportion in the hinterland areas around our cities. Employment has grown by nearly 50% from 1.3 million to more than 1.9 million. There are now 600,000 more people working in Ireland today. Those figures only refer to the recent past.
Private car ownership has increased by around 50% from less than 1 million cars in 1995 to more than 2 million today. However, our car ownership rates are still low for a developed economy. The car remains the main mode of travel to work and accounts for around 62% of all trips. Distances travelled to work are increasing, with 18% of the workforce now travelling more than 15 miles to work compared with 11% in 1996. In addition, we have seen huge increases in the tonnage of goods transported nationally by road, from 85 million to 283 million tonnes over the ten-year period to 2004. We have seen substantial increases in the numbers of people and the amount of goods passing through our airports and ports.
All of these trends have a significant impact on transport policy and the provision of transport infrastructure and services. All of these trends are in many respects positive. We all want more employment, more houses being built and a society that can afford to buy newer and better cars. As I have said before, it is the impact of these developments that is causing quality of life problems which may threaten our continued growth and prosperity. This is most visible is the congestion experienced regularly by many users of the M50.
Transport 21 is about putting in place the infrastructure and systems needed to help to continue our success. It is a programme of work which would see a modern, state-of-the-art, sustainable transport network being rolled out and delivered in the years ahead. Transport 21 will involve transport investment of more than €34 billion over ten years, the most significant infrastructural investment in the history of the State. As such, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to identify the sort of infrastructure we want and need for the decades ahead.
Transport 21 provides the basis for an integrated transport network. This is a key development. National roads are one of the two key elements of transport strategy under Transport 21. The other is public transport. During the period covered by Transport 21, we will see the transformation of the transport network in the greater Dublin area, mainly through the expansion of rail-based public transport infrastructure and through providing increased bus capacity and more quality bus corridors. We will see the implementation of an integrated transport system for Dublin to include DART extensions, seven new Luas light rail projects, two metro lines, an underground interconnector rail tunnel which will allow the various commuter rail services to be linked and expanded, and a major hub at St. Stephen's Green integrating metro, commuter rail and light rail services in the city.
Ireland has changed radically in the past ten years and will continue to do so. Ten years from now, Ireland will undoubtedly be a country with a larger and wealthier population, higher car ownership rates and greater public transport demands. Transport 21 will allow us to accommodate these inevitable developments, reduce congestion and the everyday hassle experienced by commuters, underpin our economic development and improve our quality of life.
Our success in the coming years will be fundamentally dependent on our ability to achieve a 21st century infrastructure for a 21st century Ireland. Connecting communities through an integrated transport system is at the core of Transport 21. At the launch of Transport 21, I said that all involved needed to focus on delivery and that I would be happy to be judged on how well the plan was delivered. With this I mind, it might be worth reflecting on the first 15 months or so of the programme and, especially given the context of the Bill we are considering, the progress achieved under the national roads programme.
Transport 21 builds on the successes of the national roads programme achieved over recent years. This success has been made possible by the fact that Exchequer investment in national roads during the lifetime of the current Government has been at an all time high. A total of almost €9.5 billion has been spent on road construction and maintenance over the period 1997 to 2006.
Transport 21 provides for a total investment of more than €16 billion over the period 2007 to 2015. This means that an average ongoing investment of more than €125 million per month will be made in our national roads. This investment will maintain the pace and momentum of the programme built up over recent years. Excellent progress has been made in the implementation of the national roads programme. Ireland's national road network has been transformed in that time. Since 1997, more than 90 projects have been completed totalling more than 600 km. The length of the motorway network has more than trebled in that time, from 70 km in 1997 to almost 250 km today. The total combined length of motorways and dual carriageways has increased by more than 150%.
Some of the major road building projects funded by that investment include the completion of the M1 motorway to the Border, the completion of 50% of five major inter-urban routes to motorway standard with a further 20% in construction, the Jack Lynch tunnel in Cork, the Dublin Port tunnel, and numerous bypasses the length and breath of Ireland.
Not only is the network being transformed but so is the way in which road projects are being delivered. Most projects are now being delivered on time and on budget. They include 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 which was eight months ahead of schedule; the N21 Kinsale road interchange which was six months ahead; and the M1 Dundalk western bypass which was five months ahead.
The benefits of the record level of investment are evident. The elimination of long-standing bottlenecks in Kildare, Monasterevin, Cashel, Loughrea, Drogheda and elsewhere has been achieved. This has delivered substantial journey time savings and greater journey time 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, especially motorway or dual carriageway standard roads, provide a much safer driving environment.
The development of our road network has played an important part in the record economic growth levels we have witnessed over the period, as a good road network facilitates competitiveness in the transport of goods through an improvement in overall transit times, safety levels and level of service.
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. Last year was, in every way, a record year for Ireland's national roads. The Government has hit the ground running in implementing the roads element of Transport 21. Some 14 projects were completed and open to traffic while a dozen more began construction, which represents 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.
Last year saw the completion of two major projects in Dublin, the Dublin Port tunnel and the Naas Road widening scheme. Work also started on the upgrading of the M50 and on two important national spatial strategy gateway projects, the Limerick tunnel and the Waterford city bypass. Work is currently in progress on 22 projects covering some 312 kilometres of roadway. A large number of other projects are at various stages of planning and it is worth pointing out that planning and statutory processes like environmental impact assessments and compulsory purchase can be as time consuming and almost as expensive as construction.
In the early years of Transport 21 investment in the national road network will focus on the completion of the five major inter-urban routes by 2010. After that the focus will shift towards the upgrading of the remainder of the national primary network with particular emphasis on the Atlantic corridor route. Already the strong performance of the National Roads Authority and its partners across the country in local authorities is evidenced by the fact that they have been able to advance a number of key projects on the Atlantic corridor to begin construction years ahead of their original schedules. Measures in today's Bill can only add to the efficiency of Ireland's road builders.
As I stated at the outset, the driving force behind 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. In particular, this legislation is necessary to support the introduction of free flow open road tolling at West Link on the M50 in mid 2008.
I would like to use the opportunity granted to me today to place on record a number of 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 in recent times.
There will be tolling at only one point on the newly upgraded M50 and that is at the West Link bridge. The toll plaza that is currently there will be knocked down and replaced by two gantries, the purpose of which will be to read electronic prepaid 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.
Road users will be able to pay their tolls in a variety of ways and the most common and convenient way is likely to be by prepaid electronic tag, which they will attach to the windscreen of their vehicles. As an incentive registered users will be offered a discount on the standard toll rate. Users can also post-pay after they have used the toll road and this can be done over the phone by credit or debit card, online or at retail outlets. Non-registered users who use the toll road and who do not pay within 24 hours by telephone, online or in a retail outlet 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 and if they fail to do so they will incur a liability to pay a default toll, which I will explain in more detail later.
This new system will be operated on behalf of the NRA by a toll operator from August 2008 and BetEire has been recently appointed to this role. All tolling revenues, after costs, will be reinvested in the national road network and toll levels will be kept at levels similar to those of today. The electronic tags that will be used on the M50 will work on all other toll roads.
The system is being designed and operated by some of the leading experts in the world and it will be up and running as fast as possible — a full 12 months ahead of a comparable project in Vancouver, Canada. Despite this, I know that we live in a world where there is an almost incessant demand to have things delivered immediately and I can appreciate this, especially when it comes to the M50. People feel, quite rightly, that they deserve a better service on the M50.
Commuters and road users will seek to have this happen sooner. They may feel that as the Government owns the bridge it is a case of just knocking down the toll gates and installing the necessary cameras. If only it were that simple. This Government, Transport 21 and I stand for the delivery of real, viable solutions to often complex and difficult problems. We have to get this right and time is needed to ensure all involved get it right.
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 Melbourne to Paris to California to Santiago. Their considered expert opinion is that the earliest possible date we can have a successful new system up and running is August 2008. Time is needed to design and develop the necessary computerised systems and software and 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 and 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 what the Conference of European Directors of Roads' task force on electronic fee collection recommended would be a realistic implementation timetable for such a project. Its view is that it takes a minimum of four years to put in place such a system even working at a significant speed. Interestingly, all of the major players in the world bid for this project and were incentivised to deliver in the quickest time possible. None of the other bidders gave an earlier completion date than summer 2008, which is well ahead of what is being delivered internationally. The project in Vancouver started just before us and will be completed a full 12 months after ours is up and running. This indicates the type of request we have made of the NRA and its partners to deliver on this project and the NRA is confident it can succeed. Completion of the project on time will be a world record for the delivery of such a system in such a short period. We should not forget that no other country has delivered in this kind of timeframe.
While existing legislation is adequate to facilitate the introduction of free-flow toll collection, it is essential that the enforcement provisions relating to non-payment of tolls be strengthened to provide sufficient deterrents to cater for toll violations in a free-flow open road environment.
Sections 1 and 2 set out the various definitions that are used in the Bill. 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 which is known as a default toll. The level of the charge will be set by toll bye-laws which will be drawn up by the NRA this summer following a public consultation. As colleagues know, the toll road scheme will be displayed publicly this summer, well in advance of the system going live and this will facilitate 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, what I can say is that the practical application of the charge is likely to be similar to the current parking fine system. Motorists will have the chance to pay the charge within a specified period of time from the date they receive the default toll notice. If they fail 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 of the Bill 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. This section 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 with some amendments that will slightly extend the NRA's powers to allow it to provide service and rest areas, which has been an issue I support, as well as enabling it to more efficiently carry out its functions. In particular the section now gives the NRA specific power to provide service and rest areas.
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, I strongly believe, continue to see in the national roads programme under Transport 21, is a result of the partnership ethos that has developed over many years between the NRA and local authorities.
Section 8 deals with the issue of motorway designation. A central part of the national roads programme under Transport 21 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, of which more than 70% have been either completed or are in construction.
To date, the development of these routes has been largely on the basis of HQDC standard. However, as the national road building programme has evolved, the specifications, physical design and layout features of HQDCs have developed to the point that they are now essentially the same as motorways. Nevertheless, while there is 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. Furthermore, and 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 is far more stringently controlled than in the case of HQDCs.
To protect the substantial investment being made in the national road network and help prevent its premature obsolescence, it is proposed in the Bill to provide a ministerial power to make orders declaring certain HQDCs to be motorways. The proposed provision allows the Minister for Transport, under certain circumstances and subject to consultation, to declare an existing HQDC or a HQDC in construction or planning to be a motorway. Currently, a road can legally be a motorway only if it has gone through the planning process under a motorway scheme. This section will create a straightforward alternative statutory procedure, subject to appropriate checks and balances, for a HQDC to be declared a motorway.
The provision is time limited, in that only existing HQDCs 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 the currency of this provision will probably end some time next year. In effect, this means the provision covers in the main all of the major inter-urban routes which, as I indicated, are almost three quarters complete or in construction and are due for completion under Transport 21 by 2010.
My Department will keep this provision under review in the future to ensure it reflects developments at national and European level. 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 which 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.
A well-informed and consistent approach to planning and development issues, which affords maximum support for the goal of achieving and maintaining a safe and efficient network of national roads, is essential to facilitate continued economic growth and development throughout the regions. I am conscious that 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 the local authorities, with a view to providing for improved flexibility in relation to development proposals affecting other lightly trafficked routes.
Sections 9 and 10 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 in the past decade. One of the consequences of the substantial development of long lengths of motorway and high quality dual carriageway 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, I asked the NRA to review its policy in this area last year. The authority subsequently published its policy document on service and rest areas on the national road network in July 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 km and rest areas — parking and sanitary facilities only — at intervals of approximately 25 to 30 km. These facilities will be located both on-line and at or close to existing interchanges. It is worth noting 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, particularly road hauliers who tend to drive for longer sustained periods than most other road users. The rest areas constructed on the network will also make it easier for them to comply with European Union rules on driving times and rest periods.
The National Roads Authority 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, namely, the M1, M4-N4, N6, M7-N7, N8 and N9, as well as on the N6-N18 and N11 routes.
It has become clear in recent months that there has been a poor response from the private sector to the opportunities presented to cater for road users' needs as the motorway and dual carriageway network is developed. Expressions of interest from the private sector in this regard have yet to deliver a single service area. In the light of the experience to date, these can no longer be regarded as offering the necessary assurance that road users' needs will be addressed within a reasonable timeframe. In the circumstances, the NRA has decided to become more directly involved in securing the provision of service areas.
Unfortunately, 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 am proposing 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 created by way of a PPP arrangement.
Section 11 refers to the various amendments to the Roads Act 1993, which are being made in the Schedule. I will refer to some of these later.
Section 12 introduces a number of amendments to provisions of the Taxi Regulation Act 2003. The initiatives proposed reflect issues raised with the Department by the Commission for Taxi Regulation and are aimed at building on the programmes 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 resulted in the realisation of a significant range of changes from the previous code.
Against this background, I find no reason to continue with the general requirement for ministerial consent to future regulatory changes the commission wishes to pursue. Accordingly, section 12 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 that this section provides for the extension to hackneys and limousines of the enabling powers available to the commission in respect of taxi fares. I would stress that 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.
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, which have been established in legislation since the passage of the 2003 Act.
Section 13 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 to the Act contained in the Schedule 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 which has changed since that Act was passed. Given the nature of the amendments, I will not dwell on 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 in relation to the financing, construction, maintenance and operation of toll roads.
The amendments to section 81 of the Roads Act introduce a penalty and enforcement regime which better reflects the needs of the 21st century. Penalties are strengthened and updated for various offences throughout the Roads Act. This 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. I reiterate that 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 Bill. The majority will do so without giving it a second thought. It is necessary to have the "stick" of criminal prosecution, however, to make clear that we are serious about enforcing the terms of this important road legislation.
This legislation is essential if barrier-free tolling is to be introduced in the near future. Once enacted, it will allow systems to be put in place on roads such as the M50 that will relieve congestion and improve the quality of life for all road users. The other provisions of the Bill will better allow the NRA and its partners to administer the national roads programme in order that the welcome benefits it has delivered in the past several years can continue at an even greater pace. The dividends reaped in terms of value for money and road safety will be maintained and enhanced. The substantial investment we have made and will continue to make in our national road network over the period of Transport 21 will be protected for future generations of road users.
Calls were made for me to address the issue of parking congestion experienced on public roads in the environs of sports stadia and such venues on event days. Together with some consequential and connected amendments, on Committee Stage I will bring forward a detailed amendment to the Road Traffic Act 1994 to allow local councils to deal with the matter through the making of by-laws.
The Government wishes to see a particular urgency applied to the passage of the Bill. This will allow the process of the introduction of barrier-free tolling to begin with certainty, as well as the commencement of the process for the procurement of service and rest areas on the national road network. I look forward to the co-operation of Members in facilitating the passage of the Bill and I commend it to the House.