The Government is planning new laws to fine motorists if they speed through new hi-tech toll bridges without paying any money, it was claimed today.
The Transport Department aims to introduce electronic barrier-free tolling to reduce jam on motorways like Dublin’s M50 city by-pass.
A major upgrade of the existing route is due to start this summer amid fears of worse gridlock for commuters.
But the Department’s secretary general Julie O’Neill today told the Dail Public Accounts Committee that barrier-free tolling would help reduce some tailbacks at the M50’s Westlink Toll Plaza and at other locations.
“We are looking at a legislative change to strengthen that so that people could be fined for not having paid their toll,” she said.
“We’re working on introducing that legislation to strengthen the enforcement regime so that we can move as quickly as possible to barrier-free tolling.”
The PAC was discussing the Comptroller & Auditor General’s report on the Department’s 2003 annual accounts.
Local TD Joe Higgins said that the M50 was “a car park, morning and evening” and said it had “taken its own toll on my patience and psyche”.
Defending tolled roads, Ms O’Neill said: “A modest cost associated with good transport infrastructure is not a deterrent. The evidence seems to suggest that business users and private users are more than willing to pay a modest toll if it gives them the consistency in journey times that they require.”
She said reaction to the Drogheda By-pass had been “extraordinarily positive“.
She said the Department was engaging with National Toll Roads to see how speedily the new measures can be implemented.
“We have made very, very clear the concerns we have and the need to move on those as quickly as possible.”
Mr Higgins and John Curran of Fianna Fail queried why the current volume of traffic couldn’t have been foreseen by National Toll Roads, the National Roads Authority and the Department when the Westlink Toll contract was signed in the mid-1980s.
Ms O’Neill replied that the projected volume for 2001 was put at 18,400 vehicles, but only 11,500 was reached.
Traffic had then soared to 78,000 vehicles by 2003 against all expectations.
“Nobody could have predicted what would happen in terms of the traffic explosion. I would find it hard to blame my predecessors for not foreseeing the rapid traffic expansion,” she said.
In response to a suggestion to buy out the NTR contract, Ms O’Neill said this would cost up to €400m and would have to be taken out of the funding for the existing roads programme.
PAC chairman Michael Noonan pointed out that the Department spent €128m on the Luas project in 2003.
But he added: “One of the main aims was to get people out of cars and onto the Luas. But it appears that you succeeded in getting people out of buses and onto the Luas.”
Ms O’Neill agreed that over 50,000 passengers travelled on the Luas every day and that between 7,000 to 10,000 of these people had previously taken the bus.