I am pleased to have this opportunity to meet the Joint Committee on Transport so soon after taking up my appointment as chief executive of the National Roads Authority. I look forward to a constructive relationship with the committee as we jointly progress the major programme of work during the coming years.
I understand that members have a special interest in discussing two issues at this meeting, namely, the outer orbital route project and the issue of road tolls. Committee members may have some familiarity with the road tolls issue from their visit to the M4 Kilcock-Kinnegad scheme, which is under construction and is making excellent progress since they were there. I will return to the road tolls issue later in my introductory comments but I wish first to address the outer orbital road.
The committee will be aware that since December 2003 the authority's strategic planning on national roads has been greatly facilitated by the Government's decision to adopt a multi-annual funding commitment in respect of the national roads programme. The identification of the funding to be made available during the short to medium term allows the authority to plan for the future with greater confidence, to achieve efficiencies in the development and implementation of the programme and to bring greater clarity to the anticipated timescale for commencement of construction and completion of projects. The Government, in last December's budget, flagged its intention to move to a longer ten-year planning and funding framework for major public works programmes, including national roads. I welcome this initiative because the timeframe concerned is more in keeping with the demands and complexities of major infrastructure development, planning and construction. Such a period also provides greater scope to address strategic transport issues such as those relating to a possible outer orbital route. The authority was recently asked by Government to carry out a feasibility study for such a route. I wish to confirm that planning for this outer orbital route feasibility study is under way. The authority has identified its internal project management team. Advertisements for expressions of interest from suitable consultants will be placed within the next few weeks. The timescales and process appropriate to procurement of services directives will be followed with an award of the consultancy contract in August this year.
The study will involve traffic counting, surveys and analysis and we believe it will take approximately nine months to complete. The authority should report back to the Department of Transport on the route by the middle of next year. The feasibility study will take account of some preliminary work already undertaken by the authority against the background of the Dublin Transportation Office's Platform for Change and the strategic planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area.
While the authority will revisit this earlier work, I wish to emphasise that the request from Government to conduct a feasibility study will be responded to with an open mind and will not be pre-empted or prejudiced in any way by the preliminary findings of our earlier consideration of the matter. Interested bodies, such as local authorities and the DTO, will be fully consulted.
On the question of tolling, the committee will be aware that the available Exchequer funding is insufficient to deliver all of the infrastructure projects identified in the current multi-annual roads programme. In order to complete the full programme of planned road construction, the Government has identified the need for private sector funding. The vehicle for this funding is the tolling of certain roads, generally through, although not exclusively within, the framework of a public private partnership arrangement.
A number of key principles underpin the NRA's tolling strategy. An alternative toll-free route is to be available for road users. While the NRA proposes to develop toll charges that are at an affordable level, certain users may wish to forego the improved service and shorter journey time and remain on existing roads. Toll roads should be spread across the main national routes in order to create an equitable distribution of user-charging on the newly constructed network. A road project needs to be of sufficient size in order to produce value for money when using the PPP process. Where necessary, a public subsidy will be considered for high cost schemes, which cannot be financed solely from tolls.
While the aim is to secure complete project funding from the private sector for the tolled roads, a pragmatic approach will be adopted. The NRA's national strategy is to devise tolls at a level consistent with the twin objectives of deriving revenue, while encouraging usage of the tolled road and delivering a scheme's principal transportation and environmental benefits. In the case of all schemes to date, the charges have not been set at levels that would maximise revenue. The toll charges proposed are significantly below the charges that would maximise revenues so as to maximise traffic attraction to the tolled route. The authority continues to review the potential to identify further suitable toll and or PPP schemes. With this in mind, we are currently evaluating the Galway outer bypass scheme. The authority's proposals to toll sections of the network are subject to the statutory procedures of the Roads Act 1993, as amended by the Planning and Development Act 2000. The process involves public display of the toll scheme documents, a facility for making objections and the establishment of an oral hearing.
The current status of toll schemes on national roads is as follows: the M1 Dundalk western bypass, the M4-M6 Kilcock-Kinnegad motorway, the M8 Fermoy bypass, the N25 Waterford bypass, the second West Link bridge and Dublin Port tunnel are all approved; the existing approval for the M50 PPP upgrade applies; the M3 Clonee-Kells motorway, the M7-M8 Portlaoise PPP motorway and the N7 Limerick tunnel are within the statutory process; and the N6 Galway to Ballinasloe route is yet to be published.
Our experience has been that there is a growing awareness of the need for tolling in the limited manner envisaged and there is acceptance of an appropriate level of charge in return for a high quality service as regards travel benefits and toll collection methods. An attitude survey conducted on behalf of the authority by an independent company identified a strong preference, 50% of all adults and 52% of motorists, that additional funding from private sources should be repaid by means of a special charge or toll imposed on motorists. Alternatives involving everyone paying through extra taxation or motorists paying higher motor taxes secured only 13% and 7% support, respectively.
The authority has benchmarked the structure of the toll charges against other European tolling practices and considers that the proposed Irish charges are appropriate for the following reasons. For Ireland's new major corridors the bulk of sections will be toll free. For example, on the Dublin to Cork route only two sections will be tolled, amounting to approximately 60 km of the 257 km overall route length. Where tolls are applied, the average charge per kilometre is in the mid range of charges across 12 European countries that have been analysed. The use of a median charge, together with the availability of free sections on other parts of the route, means that the overall charge for an entire route in Ireland will be well below journey charges in other countries.
The response of road users to the toll charge levels on the M1 adjacent to Drogheda has confirmed the affordability of the tolls. Since this facility opened in June 2003, traffic volumes have substantially exceeded expectations and growth has been sustained. A key issue for road users is that tolling is implemented by means of a high quality service and results in minimal delay. In order to ensure this, the authority has developed new national guidelines for plaza design which are based on best American practice. These design standards require substantial approach and departure lengths to enable efficient diverging and merging of traffic in the toll plaza area. All the lands necessary for an appropriately designed plaza are included in each CPO motorway scheme.
PPP companies operating toll roads will be required to meet strict requirements for level of service through the plaza. In line with international practice, the authority is committed to developing electronic toll collection, ETC. In the case of rural schemes, the high level of service required at toll plazas can be met through a combination of ETC and non-ETC toll payment options and through the dedicated ETC lanes. In order to cater for the expected high traffic volumes that will arise on the M50 when the scheme is upgraded, however, the authority's required solution for the West Link toll facility is to move it on a phased basis to free flow tolling, subject to legislative measures to deal with toll evasion.
As a fundamental part of its ETC policy, the authority identified the need for commercial toll inter-operability across the Irish network. For the road user, this will mean that an electronic account opened with one operator and the use of their onboard unit will be satisfactory for travel on other toll roads operated by different operators. In essence, this is a one account arrangement. To satisfy this need, the authority is currently procuring the establishment of an information exchange agent. This will essentially comprise a central clearing house to facilitate the settlement of electronic toll transactions across different toll facilities. By means of this information, exchange agent road users will be able to discharge the toll fee with a single onboard unit at every connected toll plaza in the Republic of Ireland by using the ETC facilities. It is intended that this agent will collect, process and distribute data between those toll operators.
The authority's tolled PPP programme has made substantial progress. One scheme which has been completed to date is the second bridge at the West Link on the M50, while three schemes which are under construction and making excellent headway include: the M1 Dundalk western bypass; the M4 from Kilcock to Kinnegad; and the M8 Rathcormack and Fermoy bypass. The contracts concluded to date for these schemes represent private investment of over €480 million. Tendering is under way for four further schemes which are: the M3 Clonee and Kells scheme; the N7 Limerick tunnel; the N25 Waterford city bypass; and phase 2 of the M50 upgrade. The tender process for the N6 Galway to Ballinasloe and M7 and M8 Portlaoise to Castletown and Cullahill schemes will also be advanced this year as will tolling proposals for both schemes.