Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

National Development Plan

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

5. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Transport if he intends including the western rail corridor from Athenry to Claremorris as a project in the forthcoming revised NDP; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31517/21]

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

71. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Transport the rail projects in Connacht included in the current NDP; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31518/21]

The purpose of Question No. 5 is to ask the Minister if he intends including the western rail corridor from Athenry to Claremorris as a project in the forthcoming revised national development plan. Question No. 71 asks him to list the rail projects in Connacht in the present national development plan. I look forward to the Minister's reply to those two questions.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 71 together.

As the Deputy knows, the NDP is under review and discussions are ongoing in respect of to finalising the review and agreeing a new NDP. It is important to say at the outset that my approach to this review has been based around the sort of outcomes I want to see this NDP deliver. I would like it to set the groundwork for a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland, as committed to in the programme for Government. We want to see the NDP support the investment needed to support the national planning framework, particularly in terms of supporting balanced regional development and compact growth in the five cities. This NDP needs to set us on our way to reducing emissions in line with our 2030 and 2050 net zero commitments. Our ability to deliver on those outcomes will be determined by the allocations we receive as part of the review, but my approach to the review has been framed by these considerations.

The Deputy knows I believe in the potential of rail infrastructure and services. I am of the view that this potential is not currently realised and that we can do better. That is why I broadened the terms of reference of what was a proposed high-speed study between Belfast, Dublin and Cork, so that it is now an all-island strategic rail review. This review will be conducted in co-operation with our colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive and will examine all aspects of interurban and inter-regional rail. It will set the type of strategic backdrop to rail investment in our regions and on our mainline network that the recent Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions, JASPERS, review of the western rail corridor noted was lacking.

We need this type of strategic analysis to inform our consideration of specific projects and I very much look forward to its completion next year and implementing its recommendations in the coming years, supported by the new national development plan.

In the meantime, a number of projects already under way will continue to be supported. These include the redevelopment of Ceannt Station in Galway, a new platform at Oranmore and improved protection and renewal of the network across the region generally, thanks to the increased allocations under the infrastructure manager multi-annual contract programme.

I thank the Minister for the reply. What we are getting is renewal and maintenance of what is there but we presumed that would happen. We are getting a few platforms in Ceannt Station and a passing loop in Oranmore. It is not much for the whole of Connacht. That is the first thing that has to be said.

The Minister mentioned the concept of renewing existing infrastructure. This project scores very highly in that regard. Cost certainty is absolutely huge because the big variables are taken out of this as it is an existing railway line and we have the alignment. The project scores very highly with regard to emissions. Would it ease the Minister's problems somewhat if we were to seek funding in the west from the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, to co-fund this project and potentially look for CLÁR funding as most of the railway line is in the CLÁR area? If this were to be made available to reduce the net cost to the Department, would it ease the challenge for the Minister in getting this no-brainer project off the ground at last? It is great to have a whole lot of platforms in Ceannt Station but what we really need to fill those platforms are trains coming in from three directions, rather than two.

I am sure the Deputy would agree that the first priority is twin tracking from Athenry to Galway because it would give all sorts of potential for increasing transport-led development and development in Oranmore and new areas in Galway. Down the line, when the western rail corridor is reopened, it would give greater possibilities to run services but first things first. The first project will be twin tracking from Athenry to Galway to serve Ceannt Station and other stations on the route.

Wider use of the western rail corridor goes back to what we were speaking about with regard to it being a service running from Waterford all the way up to Ballina, taking in the Waterford to Limerick line and Limerick Junction. This has to be seen as a section of this. It has to be seen not just as a Connacht issue but a west of Ireland issue for freight as well as passenger services on the Atlantic rail corridor. This is how we have to see it.

I would love to take money from the CLÁR programme or any other programme that could help funding of this because, in truth, the big challenge we will have is funding. We have just heard a very valid case for funding for a significant project in Navan in County Meath. We have just heard the same from Wicklow. Every part of the country, including Limerick, is critical. Just to upgrade the road from Westport to Castlebar would cost €250 million.

I thank the Minister.

If we think of the scale of what we are spending, this is the challenge we have.

The good thing about this project is that it would cost a lot less depending on who we believe, and whether we believe the Bradley report or the original report from Ernst & Young. Between €150 million and the outer limit of €200 million is a lot less than the cost of the road from Castlebar to Westport. There is €1 billion in the rural regeneration and development fund. Would it change the attitude of the Minister if it was making a contribution to this project? It is a straight question.

I will answer the Minister's question on doubling the line. By putting in the passing loop, which was already agreed, in Oranmore, the frequency of the trains can be reduced to quarter of an hour. This is sufficient for the moment until we build up the critical number of trains coming in. I would put it the other way around. Let us do Athenry to Claremorris first and then, when the line with the new passing loop in Oranmore carries the number of trains coming in from the various directions, we can double the line. The Minister is putting the cart before the horse.

If money were available, with 30% from sources of funding other than the Department, would the Minister be willing to let the project go ahead? As he has said, of course it is an interprovincial project and we understand the geography of it. Would the Minister be willing to let the project go ahead, stop the constant putting it for study after study and just do it? As he said, it is only renewing existing infrastructure.

It is existing infrastructure that would require a fair bit of upgrade. We would have to cross the N17 again. It is an existing line but we all know from looking at the line in close detail that it would require a fair amount of investment to bring it back to good quality status. I keep coming back to the fact that I do not think we can look at this on its own. We also have to reintroduce the rail line to Foynes at the same time, as we see the western rail corridor having access to a deep sea port, with rail freight access right down to the quayside. It is not just about the section from Athenry to Claremorris; it is part of something wider.

In truth, if we look at the line from Waterford to Limerick and Limerick Junction, we will also have to twin track from Limerick Junction to Limerick city. If we look at each individual decision on its own, we do not get the wider strategic potential of having a true western rail corridor that runs right the way up the west coast, from the south east right the way up through to the north west. It has to be part of this strategic overall vision. With regard to the strategic rail review, I know many reviews have been done and it is very frustrating but part of the problem is that people have always been looking at it in pieces and not the overall picture. The overall picture is the better way to look at it

I thank the Minister. We are over time. I allowed a little leniency because there were two questions but I am going back to strict time limits.

Question No. 6 replied to with Written Answers.

Road Projects

James O'Connor

Ceist:

7. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Transport if he will report on the infrastructure projects of the Killeagh and Castlemartyr bypasses and the Cobh access road under the review of the national development plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32133/21]

I thank the Minister for being here. I want to use this important opportunity today, before the Government finalises the review of the national development plan, once again to push for the critical infrastructure projects that are badly needed in the constituency of Cork East. It is incredibly important that the Government gives priority to the Cobh access road and the Castlemartyr and Killeagh bypasses. We are far behind where we need to be on the level of road infrastructure required to handle the traffic levels in east Cork. We need the help and assistance of the Minister. Will he please give the House an update on what is going on in these projects?

As Minister for Transport, I have responsibility for overall policy and securing Exchequer funding for the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993-2015, and in line with the national development plan, the planning, design and construction of individual national roads are a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. TII ultimately delivers the national roads programme in line with Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework and the national development plan.

Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, the national development plan was developed to underpin the successful implementation of the national planning framework. This provides the strategic and financial framework for the national roads programme for the period from 2018 to 2027. The focus of TII's activities over the coming years is, accordingly, being directed towards the development of the major national road improvement schemes that are included in the national development plan, along with the maintenance of the existing national road network.

The proposed N25 Castlemartyr bypass was not included among the projects identified for development during the period of the current national development plan. However, it should be noted that as part of the national development plan review under the programme for Government commitments, my Department, in conjunction with TII, is assessing all roads projects.

The review of the national development plan will be consistent with the ambition of the programme for Government. The updated national development plan will be aligned with the national planning framework, which recognises the crucial importance of balanced regional development, clustered and compact growth, and improved connectivity to deliver economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. I take this opportunity to highlight that all projects, including those listed in the National Development Plan 2018-2027, or any revision to the national development plan, require statutory approval and compliance with the public spending code.

Even though it is not in the NDP, one proposed project involves a bypass of Castlemartyr village on the N25 and provides a strategic link between the south east and the south west. Cork County Council, which is the road authority for the area, is progressing a feasibility study of scheme options for this project. This will examine the possibility of providing a relief road for the N25 through-traffic around the village of Castlemartyr.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I wish to point out a couple of issues to the Minister. The first is the Castlemartyr and Killeagh N25 potential upgrade that could be contained in the NDP review. Killeagh is not included in any of the replies I have received from the Department. All the Department acknowledges is Castlemartyr. I accept that the feasibility study only covered Castlemartyr. As the Minister knows, however, Castlemartyr is much more difficult from the point of view of topography, soil and rock in terms of the difficulty of the construction that will be required for the bypass section at that part of the road. The same difficulties are not there at Killeagh. It is a much easier build. I want to convey clearly to the Minister that Killeagh must be included in this. If Killeagh is not done with Castlemartyr, the total design could potentially be flawed. It is very much required. I ask the Minister to fight for the section at Killeagh as well. It is badly needed for the people of east Cork.

The existing NDP has approximately 45 different road projects. A project being in the NDP does not necessarily mean it is guaranteed to go to construction. Similarly, just because a project is not in the NDP does not mean that it will not happen. There is also flexibility within local authorities. For example, the proposed Castlemartyr bypass we are examining at present is very much led by the council, which is appropriate. The same could apply to Killeagh. Given that there will be such financing constraint and that what was in originally envisaged in the NDP involved very long sections of upgraded national roads, whose cost would run to hundreds of millions and, in many cases, billions of euro, we may have to reprioritise whereby we spend on a large number of small bypasses rather than doing one huge section of road, such as the Macroom bypass. I have nothing against the road in question, but it almost goes as far as Ballyvourney. Its cost is coming in at approximately €250 million. It is better to use our money on a series of small upgrades and bypasses so our towns and villages can be restored. Rather than listing every one of them in the NDP, the issue is to set the strategic context and the budget and then apply that across the country.

With regard to the Cobh access road, it is important to take the opportunity to acknowledge that project. The existing infrastructure to access Great Island and the town of Cobh is utterly under-resourced. It is not up to scratch, and the council will say that. The engineers who have been looking at this for the past number of years will also say it. A significant amount of funding is required to deal with that issue. There is a requirement for that to be contained in the NDP because the project will come in at well over €20 million. This is always the stumbling block with every civil servant I have engaged with at national level when it comes to getting funding for projects. I take this opportunity to reiterate that the people of Cobh need the infrastructure. Belvelly Bridge, which the Minister is familiar with, is not capable of handling the current levels of traffic. If anything happens on Fota Road, the island is completely cut off. That has occurred previously. It is very dangerous and must be addressed.

We all know there is an issue with that bridge. I understand that, first and foremost, the council is going to look at what the options are there. It is a historical bridge so we must be sensitive and examine various options. We must recognise, however, that in the context of the European recovery and resilience fund, from which we are getting a total of €1 billion, we earmarked €185 million for upgrading the Cork metropolitan rail services line. The first section is primarily working between Midleton and Kent Station and the works to go through Kent Station. That is leading to the introduction of a high-quality metropolitan service, which will also benefit the town of Cobh. We are looking at radical improvement in the frequency and operation of train services on the Cork commuter rail service and having a first-class service. To refer back to what we were discussing earlier, to my mind this is using new battery electric trains. We are talking about the very best service. That will have a significant impact on the development of Cobh and the areas of Carrigtwohill, Glounthaune, Midleton and all the stations in between. That should reorganise that area towards this much more sustainable transport system.

Driver Test

Neale Richmond

Ceist:

8. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Transport his plans to clear the backlog of driver theory tests and driving tests due to Covid-19 restrictions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31926/21]

I wish to raise the important issue of the backlogs in driving tests and driver theory tests. The pandemic has created havoc in respect of both backlog lists. What is the plan to clear both lists? These are very important services throughout the country, both in rural Ireland, which is often mentioned, and urban Ireland. It is vital that these services would be available speedily to people all over the country.

During the pandemic, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has delivered 52,569 driving tests, with no case of Covid-19 transmission attributed to a driving test. In line with the gradual reopening of services, driving tests for non-essential workers for those eligible to take the test and who have been waiting longest have recommenced to a limit of 2,000 per month. This relatively small number is a prudent step as we see what the health impact might be. I understand that, to date, the RSA has offered test bookings to over 2,500 candidates. Essential workers continue to be the priority. The reopening of essential driver training for this category means that more essential workers coming through the system will be looking for tests.

My Department is liaising with the RSA on an ongoing basis to meet the growing demand for tests. The RSA has a complement of 100 permanent driver testers. An additional 40 temporary driver testers have been authorised, along with 36 approved for retention or rehire in 2020. The additional testers are expected to start testing by the end of June. In addition, sanction is now being sought to add a further 40 testers to that cohort. We are going from 100 testers to approximately 220. The RSA is also seeking to increase the number of tests from six to seven per tester per day, as well as extending operating hours when restrictions are fully lifted.

The first 40 new testers are in training and the capacity of the service is just over 3,000 tests per week. While training is under way capacity per week is slightly reduced as testers who would otherwise be testing are involved in training new recruits. Assuming a successful return to seven tests per tester per day and with the 40 testers already approved, the capacity of the system will be 4,881 tests per week. If we are still at six tests per tester when the 40 testers begin, that figure will be 4,183. At this point, there are approximately 72,000 people eligible to take a test. With 4,881 tests weekly, it should be possible to clear that backlog in 15 weeks, allowing for those testers doing seven tests per day.

I commend the efforts to keep the service going as much as possible during the pandemic at the times when it was possible to operate. I acknowledge it is important that essential workers would be prioritised, but I believe that more could be done, particularly in respect of online theory tests. That is an area where there could be greater progress. I must express concern about some of the current technology requirements and the broadband requirements because in many areas broadband is simply not yet up to scratch and is not suitable for the tests.

It is excellent that so many extra testers have been hired. That is very positive. If the Department could clear the backlogs by September, it would be a remarkable achievement. I again emphasise how important this is for people, particularly people who need to take the test to get a licence for their work. That is very important. I ask the Minister to keep a close eye on this to ensure that progress is made.

This is critical for younger people waiting for both the theory test and the driving test. On the theory test, I am glad that we have been able to reopen the test centres. They will be permitted to conduct 25,000 driver theory tests this month. We have also opened the new online theory test service and we expect 4,000 of those to be carried out in June and a further 6,000 to be carried out in July. There is also increased expansion in our capacity.

Originally, before Covid, the capacity or typical level of testing was 15,000 per month. What we are now doing is looking to set in place a capacity which would increase up to 50,000 tests per month in order that we clear the backlog in the same way that we will try to do in the actual driver testing system.

On both these sides, no resources are being spared. No efforts are being held back in clearing that backlog. We recognise it is important for young people. It is obviously clearly dependent on what happens in respect of Covid but the fact that we have not had a single case of transmission from our testing service should give us confidence that we will be able to do this.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge the safe operating record as well. Those figures are fantastic. The Minister has set out very ambitious targets there and I hope they will be met. I ask the Minister to personally keep a close eye on it because it is so important to so many people.

What the Minister has said here this morning will be reassuring to the hundreds of people who have been in contact with my office. I am sure I speak for every Deputy in this House, as Deputies' offices are being inundated with callers who are waiting for driving tests and theory tests, particularly those who need it for work such as, for example, apprentices. It is a crucial part of living in the more isolated parts of the country. If you cannot drive a car, it is difficult to live any sort of a normal life and to get on with your day-to-day business.

I acknowledge that is a really impressive response. I welcome that extra effort in the hiring and that increased volume, and I thank the Minister.

Before the Minister responds, Deputy Duncan Smith wanted to come in.

I am unsure of the protocol, as I have not come in on another parliamentary question previously. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

I thank the Minister for the response. While it is clear that the resources are coming in, can I raise an issue? There is a relatively small subcategory of people, namely, those with additional needs and disabled drivers, who have not been able to keep up their lessons and are in danger of having their learner permits expire before they are able to take their tests. These are people who were impacted by Covid at an extra level. Were I to either submit a parliamentary question or send the Minister a letter, would he have a look at some kind of model to allow the small number of people who have additional needs, in terms of driving lessons and their ability to take them, to have the validity of their learner permits extended? This would allow them the extra time to catch up because they do not have the flexibility many others may have in taking lessons and, ultimately, their test.

Were the Deputy to send me a letter to that effect, I certainly would follow up.

I will say a "Thank you" as well. Various people have kept working. While everyone has kept working in their own way through this pandemic, the staff in driving testing were able to do those 52,569 driving tests for essential purposes. That was an important part of keeping the country and the economy going, and I thank them.

There are very significant additional resources being put in. Many of the new people are being trained by those permanent driving testers. I thank them and everyone in the theory test centres as they start to ramp up.

It was only Covid that stopped us opening and it is only the efforts of the collective population getting the disease back to low numbers that is allowing us to reopen. Hopefully, we will clear this backlog in a matter of months. That will be a good news story for everyone.

Tax Reliefs

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

9. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Transport if there are plans in place to introduce a part-time TaxSaver commuter ticket in the wake of the Covid pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32428/21]

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

17. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Minister for Transport if customers who purchased an annual commuter TaxSaver ticket for 2020 and who were subsequently provided with an extension of it to the middle of 2021 will now be provided with an extension to the end of 2021 in view of the fact that for many customers, if they have followed public health advice will have been working from home since the start of 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32429/21]

Are there plans in place to introduce a part-time TaxSaver commuter ticket in the wake of the Covid pandemic? I also wish to ask the Minister whether customers who purchased an annual commuter TaxSaver ticket for 2020 and who were subsequently provided with an extension of it to the middle of 2021 will now be provided with an extension to the end of 2021 in view of the fact that many of them, if they have followed public health advice, will have been working from home since the start of 2021.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 17 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 or in decisions on fares.

Following the establishment of the National Transport Authority in December 2009, the NTA has responsibility for the regulation of fares charged to passengers in respect of public transport services provided under public service obligation, PSO, contracts.

The Covid-19 crisis has had a profound impact on the public transport sector and the travelling public. The introduction of restrictions on public movement and the temporary closure of many workplaces, education centres and leisure and social activities across the country has led to an unprecedented fall in demand for public transport, with passengers falling to below 10% of 2019 levels at the height of the restrictions. As a result, many TaxSaver holders were not in a position to use their tickets.

As part of a suite of measures introduced in 2020 to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19, including increased PSO subvention and the introduction of temporary supports for the commercial bus sector, Government approval was given to the NTA last year to extend the TaxSaver annual tickets that existed at that time, for a further six months, in response to the Covid-19 public health emergency.

This extension facilitated many customers who had been taking infrequent trips since March 2019. In parallel to the extension, all subsidised operators continued to offer refunds to those customers who chose to seek a refund and many have done so.

The NTA informed me recently that it is not in a position to offer a further extension of the TaxSaver annual tickets. For those passengers who will be travelling less frequently than before, there remains a range of discounted fares and tickets available through the Leap card, including Leap capping, both weekly and daily, Rambler tickets for bus services in Dublin, Irish Rail web fares and other discounted products.

In relation to the possible introduction of a possible part-time TaxSaver commuter ticket following the Covid pandemic, the NTA is currently evaluating such a proposal and my Department recently commenced discussions with the NTA and the Department of Finance in order to obtain approval for the implementation of a more flexible TaxSaver product. The NTA is proceeding with the detailed technical work associated with such a proposal, while discussions with the Department of Finance continue.

I thank the Minister. The Minister will be aware of customers who purchased an annual commuter TaxSaver ticket for 2020 and were subsequently provided with an extension of it to the middle of 2021. As I understand it, no further extension is being provided in 2021. Many of those commuters have continued working from home to date in 2021 and have not availed of the six-month extension.

I know of one person, for example, who paid for a full 2020 ticket, availed of the extension when it was offered last August clearly not expecting that lockdown would go on for so long and has yet to work in the office in 2021. If people return following public health guidance, they could be paying the cost of an 18-month commuter ticket while not even using it for that period. Current advice is still to work from home. Surely these people will now be provided with an extension to the end of 2021.

I am told, as I said, that it is not intended to offer an extension. However, there is a refund capability. Many people have opted for that but others have not. The Deputy's constituent might be informed of that as one option.

The proposal implied in the Deputy's question about having new more flexible TaxSaver supports is a good one. Post pandemic, we will likely be in a situation where people are commuting in different ways in hybrid schemes where people are not all commuting five days a week where the real benefits of a TaxSaver discounted ticket would apply. That offers the best prospect for the Deputy's constituent and others as a way of meeting possibly the new and different arrangements in the autumn, in the winter and next year, when we expect people coming back to work but not necessarily in the same way that they did prior to the pandemic.

I welcome what the Minister said in relation to a part-time scheme and I hope that the discussions between the Department of Finance and the National Transport Authority can be concluded as soon as possible. We need to be imaginative about this. Covid was a challenge but it also presents opportunities as we come out of the lockdown situation.

In relation to the other question and the refund, there was an option of a refund last year if you did not choose the extension for the first half of 2021. At the time the option seemed reasonable as last August, you would not have anticipated being advised to work from home for the first six months of 2021. The fact is that someone going back next month will be paying for 18 months' travel while only availing of it for nine months over the 2020-21 period.

Did the Minister ask the NTA why it was not in a position to extend this measure? Is it fair to make people essentially pay on the double? I welcome the initiative in terms of the part-time scheme.

We are considering a range of extensions to PSO supports for commercial and public bus operators. We have maintained services throughout the pandemic even though the numbers have been low. We expect a return to 100% carrying capacity on all public transport from 2 August, so there will not be restrictions, per se, on travel. However, it is not certain that the numbers will start to return. There will be nothing stopping anyone from using his or her TaxSaver ticket to avail of a full public transport service five days per week. That is already the case, but there will be no restrictions on numbers from 2 August, subject to the pandemic not growing. I imagine that is the main reason the NTA is not seeking a further extension of the TaxSaver scheme. However, we need a new scheme and I will use the Deputy's arguments in the discussions with the NTA and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to try to deliver that.

Questions Nos. 10 and 11 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Budgets

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

12. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Transport if he plans to reallocate capital funding within the Estimate of his Department in circumstances in which there is slower than projected expenditure to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32406/21]

Does the Minister intend to reallocate capital funding within his Department's Estimates? There has been a slower rate of expenditure to date than projected, amounting to an underspend against profile of €150 million.

The capital budget for my Department for 2021 is more than €2.5 billion. My Department reports monthly to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on expenditure versus budget profile. In addition, I am also providing a quarterly report to the Government in respect of progress on the investment of capital.

Regarding the capital position at the end of quarter 1, expenditure in aviation was broadly on profile and expenditure in the maritime sector was slightly behind profile for the year to date. Regarding the land transport programme, some slight delays were experienced in respect of expenditure on local and regional roads, public transport asset purchases, station construction and new public transport infrastructure. Some of these were due to Covid restrictions and it is expected that expenditure will return to profile as the year progresses. Now that Covid-19 restrictions are being eased, I expect a clearer picture to emerge of progress on investment for 2021. In the event that any underspend emerges in a particular area or subhead, I will consider whether any such funding can be utilised by another subhead within my Department's budget. The possibility of seeking capital carry-over will also be examined.

We are already starting to reallocate some of the underspend. Deputy Ó Cuív will have seen in Galway and other cities and towns across the country new pedestrianised spaces and spaces for safe dining and sitting. As an example of responding to immediate needs and shifting budgetary priorities, we provided €15 million in emergency funding to local authorities to help set up such spaces for the outdoor summer. We also provided an additional €5 million to local authorities in respect of waste management, although that was from a different line. We have been trying to reallocate money to respond to the immediate necessities of Covid, and that is a good example of the useful use of those resources.

The Department's capital profile was to have seen 25% of the money spent in the first five months of the year. That is just over 40% of the year. However, the Department underspent by €158 million in that period, or 30% against profile. As such, the Department already has a significant underspend. That is clear from the Exchequer returns to the end of May.

I like what the Department is doing in the towns and cities. It is great, but there is a world beyond them that is being neglected. In the past ten years, not one euro from the Department has gone to non-county roads and there has been an underspend to meet the needs of county regional, secondary and tertiary roads. Will the Minister consider giving money from the local improvement scheme, LIS, to non-county roads, something that his Department has not done for ten years? Will he also consider increasing funding for county roads this year to deal with immediate problems?

Those non-county roads are in private ownership.

I am sorry, but I am uncertain as to the definitions the Deputy is using. Funding is always being sought for various categories of road, but the priority is the public road network.

There has been significant investment in local roads across the country and there has been no delay in the spending allocated. However, there has been a certain underspend because of Covid. Certain non-essential works were not continued during the first four or five months of the pandemic. There was a natural holding back. My expectation is that the Department of Transport will not have a significant underspend by the end of the year. If there is, we will manage it as a capital carry-over so that we can invest in the same urgent issues next year. I do not want to see us going short on our works programme.

What was the Department's capital carry-over from last year to this year? I am interested in getting the answer to that question. Will the Minister check as regards the roads done under the LIS that are public but not in the charge of local authorities? There is a difference. They are not privately owned. They are all public rights of way. Would the Minister consider providing extra funding to counties that could spend it on urgent works on county roads and non-county roads?

The carry-over from last year was €110 million, of which €41 million is still due to be spent.

When I describe a road as a private road, I do not deny that there is a public right of way or that such a road is important. As the Deputy said, though, there is a considerable requirement within the council's own works to maintain and upgrade the public road network. The allocation to counties in that regard is done on a fair per kilometre basis. Emergency situations are also provided for. I recently signed off on a significant allocation to cope with roads suffering particular problems due to heavy rainfall or other local circumstances. If there is any instance of roads requiring upkeep due to flooding, torrential rain or other local circumstances, we will not be short in providing funding.

I understand that Deputy Griffin wishes to contribute on this matter.

I wish to ask about moneys that will go unspent by the Department. There are shovel-ready LIS projects across the country that badly need funding. Although they have moved from the Department of Transport to the Department of Rural and Community Development, I ask that the Minister engage with the Minister for Rural and Community Affairs. We have thousands of roads around the country, many of which are used for walking and cycling because they are quieter country roads that keep people off the busy main roads. In my county, work is awaited on close to 800 roads. Many people must go filling potholes and maintaining the roads themselves week in, week out. These roads are a valuable amenity in terms of walking and cycling. Often, they are access points to mountains, rivers and lakes. It would be money well spent by the Department. These projects are shovel ready and would create valuable employment throughout the country.

To reassure the Deputies, the profile of regional and local road grants for the year to date was for us to have spent €39 million. Despite the pandemic and the differences, the actual spending for the year to date is €36.39 million.

Most of the works do not start until spring, namely, in April or May. We do not typically do those works between January and March. Thus the real expenditure is due to occur in the summer months and my expectation is we will be back on profile if not ahead of it, so there is no shortage of funding or spending in this area. All resources are being deployed as we would expect.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Duncan Smith

Ceist:

13. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Transport his plans for sector specific supports for the taxi industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31503/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

64. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Transport if he will report on the measures he is taking to support the taxi industry and taxi drivers and assist its recovery following Covid-19; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31410/21]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

98. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Transport if consideration has been given to expenditure on specific Covid-19 supports for the taxi industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32392/21]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

197. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Transport the current supports for the taxi industry, detailing plans for further supports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30203/21]

My question relates to the taxi industry. Are there any plans for a further, more comprehensive suite of sector-specific supports for the industry? The Minister is aware of taxi drivers' demands. They have been demonstrating in a positive and consistent manner and it is one of the industries which is last on the list to recover from the pandemic. I am very interested in hearing the Minister's response.

I thank the Deputy for his question. I propose to take question Nos. 13, 64, 98 and 197 together.

I take this opportunity to set out the broad framework of horizontal support measures the Government has made available to the taxi industry in response to this pandemic. The industry has been badly affected by Covid-19. Passenger demand for services has dropped and many small public service vehicle, SPSV, operators simply have not worked since the start of the pandemic. I understand as many as 70% of SPSV drivers have availed of the PUP, which, as the Deputy will be aware, has been extended to February 2022. Self-employed SPSV operators can continue to claim the PUP and earn up to €960 in a given eight-week period, net of expenses. As society begins to reopen and passenger demand for taxis increases, this will become an increasingly important support for drivers as they return to work. Drivers coming off the PUP can avail of the Covid-19 enterprise support scheme, worth up to €1,000 to meet the costs associated with returning to work. That is the context in which my Department has funded additional measures targeted at the SPSV sector.

Many of the major costs associated with operating a taxi, such as insurance and dispatch operator fees, can be deferred or cancelled during a period of inactivity. Following consultation with the advisory committee, measures are being developed to target those statutory costs that cannot be deferred. Standard licence renewal fees for SPSVs were waived in 2021 and I can confirm that they will be waived again in 2022 at an estimated cost of €3 million. Furthermore, I have allocated €3.5 million towards the refund of national car test, NCT, test fees and motor tax for SPSV operators for a 12-month period, the commencement date for which has yet to be decided. The NTA will administer these refund schemes and further details, including how to apply, should be available during the third quarter of this year.

The replacement of a vehicle is the single largest cost faced by any SPSV operator. I remain committed to supporting the transition of the fleet towards zero/low-emission vehicles.

I thank the Minister. He will be aware that the response from the taxi industry and the representative bodies has not been welcoming of what has been announced. It is not enough. The NTA has stated that SPSV drivers have €11,500 in fixed costs per year so we need a support for that. The extension of vehicle age limits must go beyond next year. Taxi drivers must be able to plan for the next three, four or five years in order to recover from this. The moratorium on taxi licences is another ask they had which would have zero cost to the State. They also want a guarantee of the continued use of quality bus corridors, which I believe is something the Minister has verbally supported them on. They also want reform or disbandment of the Taxi Advisory Council. I am in favour of reform such that the council works more effectively.

On the PUP, it must be remembered that there are a number of taxi drivers who are older and thus not entitled to the payment. They have not been able to avail of it and are outside that support mechanism.

The Deputy is right and that is a real difficulty but we have done everything to try to support the taxi industry. In the relevant negotiations, the Minister for Social Protection made an exception by allowing people in this industry to have an income while on the PUP, and also to cover the expenses. I absolutely recognise that that does not apply to people above a certain age limit but unfortunately for the Department of Social Protection, it could not go to the step of having different age limits for different sectors availing of the PUP.

On another of the Deputy's points, it is slightly infuriating that people are out there saying taxis will be banned from the bus corridors. They are just scaring people, stirring up trouble but not actually telling the truth. That was never announced, never planned and never considered. The approach has always been to allow taxis in the bus lanes. If that is a fear that is out there, let us scotch it because it is an unnecessary added fear in what is a fearful enough time for people.

It is really encouraging to have that on the record of the House. It will help to quash any concerns in relation to the issue.

We go through the arts industry and the events industry and we have spoken about aviation. Taxis drivers should be included with these industries which are going to be the last ones to recover from the pandemic. Taxi drivers have still had to pay out of their own pockets to install glass screens, acquire PPE and apply other protective measures to their vehicles. They need supports to recover from that. It almost goes unsaid but there must be a shift in how they are treated and respected by all. They are a vital service in the context of our transport system. Taxi drivers have been out there delivering people to vaccine appointments, testing appointments and doing an awful lot of unheralded work out of their own pockets in an unsafe and scary time. I certainly do not think that has been recognised enough and it needs to be put on the record. I thank the Minister for his replies today. We will continue working on this.

Questions Nos. 14 to 16, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 17 answered with Question No. 9.
Question No. 18 replied to with Written Answers.

Public Service Obligation

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Ceist:

19. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Transport if his attention has been drawn to the inconsistencies in pricing for regional public transport services whereby public service obligation fares are more expensive than Expressway fares and whereby shorter local routes which are more often used by commuters are costlier than longer regional routes; if he plans to raise the pricing anomalies with Bus Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32122/21]

My question is on whether the Minister's attention been drawn to inconsistencies in pricing for regional public transport services. Some PSO fares are more expensive than Expressway fares and some shorter local routes, which are often more used by commuters, are costlier than regional ones?

The Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 provides a statutory power to the NTA to establish a fare structure for public passenger transport services. Following the establishment of the NTA in 2009, the authority has responsibility for the regulation of fares charged to passengers in respect of public transport services, provided under PSO contracts. Bus Éireann is responsible for setting passenger fares relating to its commercial Expressway bus services. The NTA does not have a role in the setting of fares for services provided by commercial operators, including Bus Éireann. As a result, fares charged to passengers on Expressway and PSO services are set independently of each other.

Over a number of years, the NTA's approach to fare regulation has been to gradually simplify the fare structures across bus, rail and light rail services and to increasingly move towards a fairer, distance-based structure. The NTA points out in its more recent fares determinations, that fares are adjusted both upwards and downwards, ensuring the travelling public pays a fare relative to the distance they travel, such that the operators are in a position to provide a safe and reliable service. For 2020, the NTA set fares by way of two determinations. The first determination made adjustments for all monthly and annual tickets, including tax saver tickets, with an implementation date of 1 December 2019. The second fares determination addressed adjustments for all other fares with changes effective from April 2020. These determinations have further progressed the NTA's fares policy objectives.

I agree with the Deputy on the point that we must go further and do more because there are anomalies right across the country that are regularly brought to my attention. In some cases, the fare suddenly jumps up once a person travels outside a certain zone and it is not done on the basis of distance. I will talk to the NTA and Bus Éireann and see what we can do to progress that simple mechanism whereby there is a correlation between distance and fare structures, so we do not have these anomalies where fares suddenly jump once people go beyond a certain boundary limit.

I thank the Minister for the response but I am not sure it quite gets to the heart of the question. I know we should try not to refer policy from anecdote but this one example is illustrative and indicative of the pricing inconsistency that exists across the country. A PSO service, the 362 service, runs from Dungarvan to Waterford. To get from Dungarvan to Waterford on that PSO service, which is publicly subvented, costs €13.50. The same journey from Dungarvan to Waterford on the Expressway route costs €5. This type of pricing inconsistency, for the people standing at the bus stop waiting for the next service, creates ill feeling and confusion. It puts people off using public transport and also creates difficulty for drivers. While they might be two arms of the same company, it is the same drivers who are operating on these routes and, in one instance, they are being asked to charge €13.50 and, in the other, €5. There are a whole host of other issues on that route that need to be addressed.

I agree with the Deputy. That is a very good example of an anomaly where the fare system is not based on similar distance. Bus Éireann, like all transport companies, is going through its own challenges in managing Covid but when coming out of it, we want it to come back stronger, both in the work it does on Expressway and on the PSO services, and in the work it does in supporting education and other services for the Department of Education. In that regard, there is a lot of work to be done in standardising fares, standardising the booking system and making it easier to book online, given there are all sorts of different anomalies which do not facilitate easy encouragement of passengers.

The example given by the Deputy is a good one. I will bring it up directly with the company to see what can be done as an example of change.

On the Minister’s second point on inconsistencies with regard to distances, I would draw his attention to the specific example of Tramore, which was left out of the Waterford metropolitan area transport strategy in what was a serious omission. What we now have is the 360 route as opposed to Waterford to Tramore being considered a city route and part of the city service. That leads to a greater price, given it costs people €2.80 to make a one-way journey on that route, which means it costs one more than a fiver to get in and out.

It shows. People are voting with their feet and there was less than 2% commuter usage in and out of Waterford city. We know Tramore is very much a commuter town and something close to 50% of the people who are living in Tramore work in Waterford city, yet we only have a 2% uptake on that transport corridor. It was a serious omission to leave Tramore out of the metropolitan area strategy and it has led to that increased price point, which makes public transport unattractive.

I understand there is a lot of good work going on in Waterford in terms of it setting itself as an example of a sustainable city. It needs to grow as a capital of the south-east in that way, and part of that is recognising that places like Tramore, which now has a population of almost 15,000 and is, as the Deputy said, a dormitory town, are inextricably linked to Waterford in so many different ways. It makes sense to include it in the Waterford metropolitan area transport strategy. As that has not concluded, it should be possible for that sort of amended approach to be incorporated in the ongoing work. It is a reality that many people are living in Tramore and working in Waterford city, and the connection between the town and the city is an important part of that sustainable vision for Waterford.