Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Questions (54)

Imelda Munster

Question:

54. Deputy Imelda Munster asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his views on the estimated spend of 20% of the budget of his Department on public transport; his plans to increase this percentage in view of existing deficits in public transport provision and the ongoing need to reduce car use to comply with obligations regarding emissions; his further plans to increase spending on the public service levy specifically to increase routes and service frequency; if new railway projects will be announced in particular outside of the greater Dublin area; the increase in the public transport budget he is seeking in budget 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29825/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Transport)

I ask the Minister to comment on the estimate that 20% of his Department's expenditure relates to public transport. Does he intend to increase this percentage in light of the existing deficits in public transport provision and the ongoing need to reduce car use to comply with our emissions obligations? Does he intend to increase spending on public service obligation routes and service frequency? Does he intend to announce any new railway projects, including new railway lines, outside the greater Dublin area? What level of increase in the public transport budget is he seeking in budget 2020?

I will miss Deputy Munster in the weeks and months to come.

I will not say "likewise".

I do not doubt that she is going on to greater things. In budget 2019, almost 35% of the total voted expenditure of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport was allocated to supporting sustainable mobility. I fully agree with the Deputy that we need to increase that level of funding in the years ahead. I am sure she will welcome the increases I have secured in the allocations for sustainable mobility in the coming years as part of Project Ireland 2040. The capital allocation is scheduled to increase by approximately 48% next year and by a further 46% in 2021. On current expenditure, the subvention levels have increased substantially in recent years. There has been a 36% increase in the past four years. A total of €287 million is being provided this year. This increased subvention is supporting improved services in urban and rural areas. The increased services are allowing more people to make the shift to public transport, with a 7.5% increase in passenger numbers recorded last year.

The Deputy will acknowledge that a number of important projects are under way or are scheduled to start this year. The continued expansion of the bus fleet will add more capacity to bus networks across the country. I could also mention a number of significant active travel projects in our major cities, like the Royal Canal greenway in Dublin, the Harley Street bridge in Cork and the Parnell Street project in Limerick. Trams on the Luas green line are being extended, with the first of the newly extended 55 m trams due to enter service after the summer. We are increasing funding for the maintenance and renewal of the national rail network by 23% this year to help to deliver improved journey times and reliability on the network. A new national train control centre will commence construction later in the year. The city centre resignalling project will deliver increased rail capacity when it has been completed. We are continuing to fund the planning and design of the transformative projects planned under the BusConnects, MetroLink and DART expansion investment programmes. I am confident this increased investment will enable more people to make the shift away from the car and toward sustainable options.

We all know the benefits of good transport links for individuals, businesses and communities. It is a matter of frustration for people in many rural areas and urban areas outside the greater Dublin area that such links do not exist in large parts of the State. As I have said previously, there are parts of rural Ireland that do not have any public bus services, or perhaps just one bus a week. People have a right to expect connectivity not just between rural and urban parts of the country - we know all about the benefits of such connectivity - but also between smaller towns. In the absence of such connectivity, how does the Minister intend to reduce emissions and encourage more people to reduce their use of cars, particularly in rural areas outside the greater Dublin area?

The Deputy will be aware that reducing emissions from cars and public transport and encouraging people to cycle and walk are significant priorities in the climate change programme we have announced. Alternatives to the private car are very important. As the Deputy will be aware, on a daily basis we are trying to encourage people to move out of their cars. That is why we have set demanding and high targets for the number of electric vehicles. We are seeking to have nearly 1 million electric cars on the road by 2030. Some people have described this target as challenging and others have described it as ambitious. We are determined to tackle this issue in an unprecedented manner. This will be difficult, but we believe it can be achieved. As the Deputy will be aware, we are providing a lot more funding for cycling. We are totally committed to the cycling story. We have bought into it. An unprecedented level of funding is going to cycling. Some €53 million is being provided for greenway cycling routes all over the country. The Dodder greenway and other cycling routes will open this year. We have made a commitment to large public transport projects to take people into public transport and to active travel to get people out of their cars. We will reduce emissions in that way.

I acknowledge that there has been investment in large public transport projects in the greater Dublin area in recent years. It is all very well and good for the Minister to refer to the climate action plan, but the Government needs to invest the money to make its targets realistic. For example, there is no reference in Project Ireland 2040 to any new rail lines. We know the current structure is at capacity in many areas. There are serious problems with overcrowding. Does the Government have plans for any new rail lines throughout the State? From where we are standing, it is difficult to see that a real effort is being made to provide funding to encourage people, particularly in rural areas where the public transport system is non-existent or extremely poor, not to use their cars. The Minister knows that in many rural areas, there is no bus service on which one could rely if one wanted to leave one's car at home.

In recent times, we have done a great deal to improve bus services in rural areas. The Deputy will be aware that along with the National Transport Authority, NTA, we launched a programme last year to improve the rural bus network through the LocalLink services. I think there are 59 such services now. There were 66 services at one stage. As part of an extremely successful pilot scheme between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., services have been provided on the basis of demand response units and others have been provided by adding to existing routes. They have worked very well and they have been very well responded to. The NTA has decided it is well worth continuing with this sort of project. We have given grants to various other community transport systems in rural Ireland to help out where there is no commercial reason to launch projects of this sort, but there is a social need. It would be wrong to suggest we are ignoring rural Ireland in this area because the opposite is the case. We are looking for constructive solutions to assist isolated people who cannot get out in the evenings or at various other times of the day. We have made great strides in this respect. We intend to continue to expand these initiatives. We have introduced new rail services on the crowded commuter lines to which the Deputy has referred. We have introduced additional trains at off-peak times to try to change people's travel patterns as they commute to and from work and thereby reduce overcrowding on some commuter rail services. We think this has been successful as well.