Serious traffic congestion at the toll bridge, owned by National Toll Roads (NTR) has been a source of considerable frustration to Dublin commuters.
Yesterday, senior Department of Transport officials appeared before the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee to discuss the contracts with toll operators NTR.
Its general secretary Julie O’Neill told the committee that “difficult and intense negotiations were ongoing between the National Roads Authority (NRA) and NTR” in relation to removing barriers and installing an electronic system to ease traffic flow.
Committee members expressed frustration and disappointment at the seemingly slow progress - the same issue was discussed at a committee meeting last February.
Ms O’Neill assured the committee that negotiations were being treated with urgency. However, the NRA also had to get the best value for the taxpayer.
But towards the end of the hearing, Labour party leader Pat Rabbitte was handed a note referring to a parliamentary answer given by Transport Minister Martin Cullen to Labour TD Roisín Shortall last March.
It indicated that barrier-free tolling would not be introduced until upgrade work to widen the M50 is completed in 2010.
Mr Rabbitte said the tenor of the Department’s submission yesterday was that when negotiations were complete, barrier-free tolling could be installed.
“This is a horse of a considerably different colour,” he said, expressing astonishment that the Minister’s position was that it would not happen for five years.
In response, Ms O’Neill said it was her understanding the position had changed since then and that the move to remove barriers would be made in conjunction with the upgrade work, and not at its end.
“I do not want to create the impression that it is an overnight solution,” she said. “That is not the case.”
PAC chairman Michael Noonan said that in light of the new information, the Committee needed to return to the subject.
Earlier, Mr Noonan told Ms O’Neill of the widespread frustration with traffic jams at the bridge and asked her assurance to deal with the matter urgently.
Much of the discussion centred on the two contracts NTR was awarded to run the bridge.
Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins said: “If Dick Turpin assembled a gang of highwaymen and robbery to sit down and negotiate a deal with NRA he could not have done a better job.”