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National Roads Authority Expenditure

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 27 June 2013

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Questions (1, 2)

Timmy Dooley

Question:

1. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the way he intends to ensure the M50 is fit for purpose; the capital expenditure that is planned for the motorway; his plans to include bus rapid transit as part of a solution to ease the congestion on the M50; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31175/13]

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Dessie Ellis

Question:

2. Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his plans to ensure safety standards on the M50 while avoiding increases in tolls and forcing drivers into residential or built up areas. [31341/13]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Transport)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

These questions are about the M50. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall maintenance and funding in relation to the national roads programme.  The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. The M50 upgrade project, which was approved in 2005, resulted in the addition of a third lane in both directions from the M1 to Sandyford and a fourth auxiliary lane in places, together with the development of freeflow junctions and the introduction of barrier-free tolling. This major investment has significantly enhanced the capacity of the motorway. There are no proposals at present for further investment in additional capacity. One of the conditions attached to An Bord Pleanála's approval of the upgrade was the publication of a scheme of demand management measures within three years of the completion of the work. The National Roads Authority, in conjunction with the relevant local authorities, has been working on such a scheme and a draft report was published recently.

I undertook a review of tolling policy when I took over as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Having reviewed the position, and in the context of budgetary measures that led to an increase in VAT and carbon tax, I decided in late 2011 that new tolls would not be introduced during my term as Minister. This position remains unchanged. The likely impact of multi-point tolling on the M50 would be to push vehicles onto other roads and through local communities. At present, congestion is not the problem it was when An Bord Pleanála granted permission for the M50 upgrade, but it will re-emerge as an issue if and when the economy recovers. At that point, we will need a joined-up solution to deal with congestion across the greater Dublin area, and not just on the M50. Apart from tolling, the draft report does include other measures specific to the effective operation of the M50 which merit consideration. Overall, I see the demand management report as part of a process to look at options for managing traffic in the greater Dublin area in the future. The potential role of bus rapid transport within the greater Dublin area is being considered in that context. However, I am unsure whether a bus rapid transport service on the M50 would be appropriate or useful given the difficulty people would have in getting to bus stops on a motorway.

I thank the Minister for confirming he intends to maintain the policy of retaining the tolls at their current levels, rather than increasing them in line with some of the recommendations of the demand management report. Although growth in activity on the M50 has moderated somewhat and will not reach the expected levels by 2015, it is a fact that within the next ten years the expectation is that the M50 will have reached peak capacity at certain times of the day. Obviously, that is a concern from a forward planning point of view as we try to encourage people to invest and develop businesses in this city. What strategy does the Minister intend to put in place to take on board the issues that have arisen in the demand management report? What methodology has been put in place in the Department to plan for the future? It is fine for all of us to agree that the demand is not there, because of where the economy is at, and to wait and see what happens in the future, but I think we need to do more than that. If the Department has not already started to develop a strategy to meet the future need that is expected, I hope it will do so quickly. It would be very helpful if the Minister outlined his thoughts in that regard.

It may be projected that the M50 will be congested in ten years' time, but I am not sure it can be described as "a fact" given that it will depend on many things, not just the level of growth in the economy but also the modal split between vehicles and public transport. A number of the proposals that are made in the report, including the introduction of variable speed limits, the provision of increased information on the motorway, the establishment of a national traffic control centre and the development of some other smarter travel measures, could help to manage congestion. I expect that such technology will increasingly be used to manage our road network. It is a flawed approach to try to deal with the issue of congestion in Dublin as an M50 issue, because it is not that simple. This issue affects the roads adjoining the M50 and the greater Dublin area as a whole. Two things are being developed in that regard. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is developing a new transport investment strategy in preparation for the next national development plan. The National Transport Authority is developing a six-year plan for traffic and investment in Dublin. I believe we should approach this issue in that holistic context across the greater Dublin area and not just down the M50 mainline.

I thank the Minister. I am glad to hear he has no plans to put further tolls on the M50, which is undoubtedly the busiest road in the country. All the main carriageways from north, south, east and west converge on the M50. We were opposed to the tolling of the M50 from the outset. We saw what happened when the contract was drawn up with the company that was previously responsible for the tolling of the M50. A previous Government rectified the matter by taking on that responsibility. As a result, we now have the freeflow system, which is not perfect but is certainly a huge improvement. It seems that the M50 as a whole is managing pretty well, although problems have been identified during peak hours. Our plans need to be concentrated on what we can do in those peak hours. A price increase would definitely lead to rat-running in housing estates, residential areas and built-up areas, which would be a disaster. Does the Minister accept that more investment in public transport and integrated travel is needed? We have some integrated travel, involving the bus and rail networks, but what about the integration of bicycles etc.? In the long run, such measures will help to relieve congestion.

I accept there needs to be a joined-up approach to the management of traffic in the greater Dublin area and in all our cities and towns. That approach needs to take account of things like bicycle and pedestrian access, investment in public transport and demand management. I am not part of the lobby in this country that thinks we should persecute the motorist. I do not think we can put further pressure on motorists until we have provided alternatives. I am conscious that fuel prices are much higher than in the past, that people are struggling to take out car loans to replace their cars as they get older and that the requirement to pass the NCT also places pressure on motorists. It is certainly not in my plan for the next couple of years to make life harder for people who use their cars to get to work and bring their kids to school etc.

If the M50 does become a problem, and the Minister has said it might, the old plan for an orbital route around the northern part of the M50 could be considered for the future, although finances will obviously have a bearing on that. We have the example of the port tunnel, which used very high prices to ensure very few private cars use it while taking the trucks and heavy traffic off the main roads in the city centre. The example is there that increasing the prices will deter private cars from using roads like the M50, which is the lesson we have to learn. There has to be consideration of other alternatives. One of the past suggestions was this orbital route, which might be a way to go forward.

I take the Minister's point that the potential future growth in traffic on the M50 cannot be resolved in isolation, and it of course has to be part of a co-ordinated plan. However, I am not convinced the Minister or his Department are taking seriously the potential for the M50 to reach a threshold beyond which problems are created. From an historical point of view, we all look at the legacy of the past in regard to not getting rid of the barriers at a much earlier stage, yet growth came much quicker that we expected because of the boom in the economy. I get the sense around many of the Departments that there is almost an inertia in regard to the thought that we will ever see significant levels of growth again. When growth comes, it can come quickly and in an unpredicted way. When that happens, we will see a level of increase. I would like to think there is somebody in a positive frame of mind who is planning in the hope, expectation or belief that this will happen sometime into the future. For that reason, I hope the Minister will establish a steering group across all infrastructure in the State that looks to where the potential bottlenecks might be in the event or hope that we will see a sustainable level of normalised growth again, which is a regular feature of economies in the developed world.

The work the Department is doing in regard to the integrated transport strategy is exactly that. Rather than just using a projected growth figure, given these are always wrong one way or the other, which is the nature of these things, we are looking at different scenarios, for example, a low growth scenario, a middle growth scenario and a high growth scenario, and examining what bottlenecks and issues may arise in those different scenarios.

With regard to the Leinster outer orbital route, the big idea in the past was to put a motorway through Leinster and allow people to bypass all of Dublin. That would be horrendously expensive - we are talking of billions of euro - so it is way down the priority list. There are so many other public transport and regional road projects, as well as the need to improve road access into the north west and the west, which I believe should take priority over a new motorway around Dublin.

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