Transport policy - Time for a debate on road tolls

Welcome, positive statements were made on transport policy and infrastructure yesterday.

One will hopefully energise the rejuvenation of the mid west and the other allays fears about the imposition of a toll on the Jack Lynch Tunnel.

Yesterday Transport Minister Leo Varadkar announced that Shannon Airport is to become a publicly owned, independent entity thereby cutting the umbilical cord to the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA). Cork Airport is to remain a fiefdom of the DAA despite persistent calls from regional business interests for greater autonomy for the gateway facility.

Some years ago one of Mr Varadkar’s predecessors, Fianna Fáil Transport Minister the late Seamus Brennan, promised that Cork would leave the shadow of the DAA but insurmountable debt issues, and changing economic circumstances, blocked those plans.

Mr Varadkar hopes Shannon’s next iteration will help stimulate growth in the mid west, just as Shannon Development did so many years ago. However, Ireland’s most successful aviation executive — Michael O’Leary — has said the airport would only realise its full potential if it was sold and managed by private interests.

Let us hope everyone involved in the Shannon project realises the best argument against selling off the family silver is a commercially successful, public-sector enterprise. Unfortunately, especially for state enterprises not insulated from reality by holding a monopoly, that hope was too often misplaced. What a wonderful vindication it would be if this project proved a success.

Equally, the National Roads Authority statement that any changes to how the Jack Lynch Tunnel is managed on its behalf would not lead to the almost 70,000 motorists who use the taxpayer-funded facility every day having to pay a toll is reassuring.

Such an imposition would have been unacceptable especially at this time when fuel costs are soaring towards the €2-a-litre mark for petrol.

The NRA acknowledged that the imposition of a toll would be a political decision and, when taken in conjunction with Mr Varadkar’s frequent assurances that no new tolls would be introduced while he is Transport Minister, it brings some degree of certainty to the issue. However, it is now appropriate that the Government confirm that it will not introduce any tolls on publicly funded roads already in existence.

Indeed it is time to have a debate on how far we are prepared to go with tolls on our roads. This is particularly relevant as it is unlikely any major projects will be commissioned in the short term. This opens the door for private interests but is not without its difficulties. Developers will expect minimum returns as was seen when compensation packages were paid to the developers of the Shannon tunnel because it has not proved as lucrative as was expected.

As we have said many times before no party has sought much less been granted a mandate to impose tolls. If this is to be our way of funding road development then all of the other taxes heaped upon road users must be reviewed downwards. As that is more than unlikely maybe it’s time for Mr Varadkar to outline how our road building might be funded or will our roads become another of those areas where we pay twice ... once through taxes on cars and fuel and again to the private companies taking over what should rightly be the responsibilities of the State?


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