Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Ceisteanna (44)

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

44. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if free public transport will be provided for children up to 18 years of age as soon as possible; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39941/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Transport)

Yesterday, Sinn Féin launched its alternative budget, one of the key proposals of which is to make public transport free for all persons under 18 years old. It makes sense from a cost of living perspective, from an economic perspective, from a transport perspective and, in particular, from a climate perspective. Will the Minister follow the initiative we have taken, consider the proposal and implement it?

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. The National Transport Authority, or NTA, has statutory responsibility for the regulation of fares for public passenger transport services with the transport operators. The funding of public service obligation, or PSO, services comprises fares paid by passengers and subvention payments from the Exchequer. The main purpose of the subvention payment is to meet the gap between the income from fares and the cost of operating services. In 2019 alone, the Exchequer has allocated just over €300 million in subvention for PSO transport services and rural transport local link services. Along with that subvention, we are investing almost €480 million this year in public transport and active travel infrastructure.

The Deputy suggests abolishing fares for children up to the age of 18 years. One of the factors to take into account is that the full amount collected from fares is approximately €625 million annually, of which €27.3 million relates to fares for children aged five to 18 years, inclusive, and €49.6 million relates to student fares, some of whom would be expected to be 18 years or younger. I am advised by the Department of Education and Skills that receipts from school transport charges in 2018 amounted to some €15.9 million, or approximately 8% of the total cost of the scheme provided by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. If free travel were provided, this would be the additional cost on the scheme. As such, the rough cost to taxpayers of the Deputy's proposal, including the school transport scheme, would be more than €43 million every year over and above the huge amounts already given to provide for the public transport PSO subvention and capital investment. The Deputy should realise that €43 million is only what it would cost the taxpayer to give a free fares windfall to existing passengers in the under-18 age bracket. It would not pay for one extra bus or one extra passenger journey as it does not factor in the costs of catering for increased passenger travel demand.

I can see that the Deputy is trying to find a way to move more people onto public transport. I applaud any idea of this sort coming forward although I would have a reluctance to accept some ideas on grounds of cost. This idea is neither new nor barmy. It is helpful and adds to the debate. I am sure the Deputy shares my ambition to move more people to public transport. I am working to have a public transport system that provides a sustainable, viable, attractive and economic mode of travel for more people for more of their journeys.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

We all know that our country is facing challenges on climate commitments and on the congestion that this Government is determined to address. That is why we are expanding our public transport fleet so that there are more buses, more trains and longer trams to carry more passengers. We are developing long-term solutions through Metro and the DART expansion. We are enhancing cycle networks and making cities easier to navigate for pedestrians. We are supporting higher frequency bus services in rural areas. We are investing in well-planned, integrated infrastructure and service improvements in all the main cities. That is why we are investing €8.6 billion in sustainable travel under the national development plan. We know our public transport system and active travel networks need to be better. We know they need to better support sustainable mobility by linking more people to more places for more of their journeys. We know it and we are doing it. We are promoting a shift to public transport. We are enabling a shift to cleaner, greener alternatives. Our ambitions are high and the costs are hefty but the House will agree that the costs of not doing it are not acceptable. We cannot let our society drive itself unthinkingly into more congestion, more pollution and more harmful emissions.

Enabling and promoting a shift to more sustainable forms of transport for a higher number of journeys will help reduce Ireland's climate change emissions. Part of this work is to encourage and develop sustainable transport habits among different groups within our population, including the young people. The NTA is conscious of this in exercising its statutory responsibility in relation to fares. Each year, the NTA conducts a thorough examination of public transport fares and publishes on its website the details of this work, including information regarding all fare changes it decides upon. The Deputy will know that the NTA sets the fares for children on PSO services at a level considerably lower than the standard passenger fares. The NTA also runs some targeted promotion initiatives from time to time to stimulate fresh interest in public transport use, including its Kids Go Free promotion offer in July delivered through the Leap card integrated ticket for public transport.

Fares from passengers are one element of meeting the costs of providing and running the public transport system while the State and the taxpayer are the main funders. Any proposal to reduce or abolish passenger fares for a cohort of customers would have to be funded through either an increase in fares for other passenger cohorts or by an increase in PSO funding from the taxpayer via the Exchequer.

Sinn Féin is perfectly aware that there are implications not only in the cost of the free fares but also by way of additional carriage on the system. We have provided for that in our budget by identifying €31 million for free fares and an additional €50 million for the PSO. That is an acknowledgement that one not only needs enhanced capacity for carriage, but that even aside from children, there is a need to expand the number of routes and the coverage provided by Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann, the Luas and so on. There has been a lot of discussion around this. It is important from a climate point of view and an economic one. One aspect of climate policy which the public grasps instinctively is that the number of journeys we take by car is unsustainable. Our proposal would not only make public transport more affordable for families, it would also be habit-forming. It would mean that by 18 years of age, people would be in the habit of taking public transport. In the long run, fares for those aged over 18 years should also be reduced. This proposal represents very good value for money. It would have a real impact on reducing the level of school traffic and traffic generally and foster good public transport habits.

I am not sure that it is good value for money. I spelled out for the Deputy the costs, which are absolutely formidable. It would be very difficult to raise that sort of money. What we are talking about here are substantial sums which it is not guaranteed would deliver on the objective at this stage. The Deputy and his colleagues are approaching the issue in a reformist way, which is helpful, but we must look more closely at proposals like this before we take them on board. The Deputy has seen the Kids Go Free campaign, which reflects some of his thinking and is an effort to get young people into the habit of taking public transport. The scheme was very successful over the summer months. To go to the lengths the Deputy proposes, however, would be very expensive indeed. Nevertheless, to develop new habits in young children to get them used to public transport is something I applaud.

We all know that our country is facing challenges on climate commitments and on the congestion that this Government is determined to address. That is why we are expanding our public transport fleet so that there are more buses, more trains and longer trams to carry more passengers. We are developing long-term solutions through Metro and the DART expansion. We are enhancing cycle networks and making cities easier to navigate for pedestrians. We are supporting higher frequency bus services in rural areas. We are investing in well-planned, integrated infrastructure and service improvements in all the main cities. That is why we are investing €8.6 billion in sustainable travel under the national development plan. We know our public transport system and active travel networks need to be better. We know they need to better support sustainable mobility by linking more people to more places for more of their journeys. We know it and we are doing it. We are promoting a shift to public transport. We are enabling a shift to cleaner, greener alternatives. We would accept any solution.

The Minister makes the point about formidable cost but there is also a very formidable cost in the large proportion of children travelling to school by car and ensuring the roads are maintained for that purpose. In in the long run there is also the potential cost of the fines Ireland may face for carbon emissions. I note the NTA, in its announcement of free travel for children under the age of five in 2017, stated: "The Authority recognises that the cost of travel with a young family can be expensive and today’s move marks another step towards making sustainable transport a more affordable option for more families." The Minister also referred to the Kids Go Free initiative. Sinn Féin's proposal is consistent with that logic. I agree with what the NTA said but we must ask what steps have been taken since then. How are we building on these initiatives and how will we increase the number of people who use public transport, including young people? This is not simply a question of doing something nice; this is strategic investment. In all of our major cities there is a chicken and egg scenario, whereby people will not take the bus until cars are moved off the road. People will not make the change until traffic is lighter and buses move quicker. This is an immediate initiative that can kick-start that process.

We are taking dramatic, radical and substantial measures to do exactly what the Deputy has asked, namely, to get people out of private cars and onto public transport. We also have plans for Cork. I will not list the various measures because I do not have time but the Deputy will be familiar with them, especially those that apply to young people. Our ambitions are high but the costs are hefty. I believe the House will agree that the costs of not doing this are unacceptable. We cannot let our society drive itself unthinkingly into more congestion, more pollution and more harmful emissions. Enabling and promoting a shift to more sustainable forms of transport for a higher number of journeys will help to reduce Ireland's climate change emissions. Part of this work involves what the Deputy outlined, namely, to encourage and develop sustainable transport habits among different population groups, particularly younger people. The NTA is conscious of this in exercising its statutory responsibility in the area of fares. Each year, the NTA conducts a thorough examination of public transport fares and publishes on its website the details of this work and information regarding all fare changes it decides upon. The Deputy will be aware that the NTA sets the fares for children on public service obligation, PSO, services at a level considerably lower than the standard passenger fares. As noted, the NTA also runs some targeted promotional initiatives from time to time to stimulate fresh interest in public transport, including its Kids Go Free promotion offer in July, which was delivered through the Leap card integrated ticket for public transport.