I propose to take Questions Nos. 173, 206 and 207 together.
As Minister for Transport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. I am not involved in the day-to-day operations of public transport, nor decisions on fares.
It is the National Transport Authority (NTA) that has the statutory responsibility for the regulation of fares in relation to public passenger transport services and for securing the provision of public transport services by way of public transport services contracts in respect of services that are socially necessary but commercially unviable. The funding of those services comprises both the fares paid by passengers and the subvention payments from the Exchequer. The main purpose of the subvention payment is to meet the gap between income from fares and the cost of operating services.
The provision of public transport services is heavily dependent on passenger fare revenue as it normally contributes about 65% of the operational cost. The remaining 35% of cost is covered by the PSO grant and the Department of Social Protection grant under the free travel scheme.
Providing free public transport is often seen as a silver bullet solution to our transport and climate challenges. And while I recognise the importance of incentivising greater use of our public transport services, I am not convinced that providing free public transport is the most balanced means of achieving this objective.
COVID gave us some insight into the level of funding that might be required in the absence of fare revenue. For example, in 2020, an additional €370 million was required to enable the continued operation of public transport services due to the collapse of fare intake. In 2021, €659m was required to run PSO services, and this year we have allocated €538 million for the continuation of these essential services. Apportioning such significant levels of Exchequer resources to one goal undoubtedly impacts the State’s ability to support other worthy public services.
While I might not agree that free transport provides the answer, I do believe there is merit in incentivising fares when an appropriate balance can be struck. In view of the importance of incentivising young people to use public transport, I was delighted to introduce the Young Adult Card in May which will allow any person nationwide who is between 19 and 23 years old, to avail of an average of discount of 50% on public transport fares. In addition, a 20% average PSO fare reduction was introduced as part of a suite of Government measures to help combat the rising cost of living.
In addition, as well as the TFI 90 Minute Fares scheme which means that adults now pay €2, young adults pay €1, and children pay just 65 cent to travel for up to 90 minutes on Dublin Bus, Luas and most DART, commuter rail and Go-Ahead Ireland services in Dublin. In May alone, the number of people who had a Child Leap Card, Student Leap Card, or the new Young Adult Leap Card increased by over 16,000, which is very encouraging.
While fare reductions are to be welcomed, investment in additional services is also critical. For this reason, I am committed to progressing core projects like BusConnects, Connecting Ireland and DART+ as well as improving existing services across the country.
Licensed bus and coach operators are an integral part of the overall public transport system, particularly in areas around the country which are not covered by existing public service bus and rail services. In recognition of the important role these operators play, the Government has continued to provide temporary financial supports throughout the Covid-19 pandemic for certain licensed commercial services, with a view to protecting capacity across the public transport sector throughout the crisis.
In acknowledgment of the continuing difficulties facing this sector, these supports for the commercial sector were recently extended up to the 30th of June 2022. To date over €60m has been provided to support the Commercial Bus Operators during this challenging time.
It is envisaged that the YAC will be broadened to include commercial operators at a later date. However, it is important to note that it is technically more challenging to roll-out fare initiatives such as the Young Adult Card on the commercial bus network than it is on the LEAP enabled PSO network. As such, it will take longer to make this fare discount available to Commercial Bus Operators. The National Transport Authority (NTA) is in detailed discussions with transport operators and the Department of Transport regarding the range of issues that need to be addressed. To assist with this process, the NTA has established a joint working group with commercial bus operators to consider options and develop a plan to implement the Young Adult Card on Commercial Bus Operators in as timely a manner as possible, taking account of current ticketing capabilities to ensure a viable scheme is implemented
The PSO programme represents a significant expenditure of taxpayers' money, and funding has increased in recent years to cater for additional services and growing capacity. Any assessment of a proposed change to public transport fare structures would be a matter for the NTA to consider in the first instance. Therefore, in light of the Authority's responsibility in this area I have forwarded the Deputies specific questions in relation to free transport, to the NTA for direct reply. Please advise my private office if you do not receive a response within ten working days.