Dwindling road traffic costs State €500,000 a month


THE STATE is paying almost €500,000 a month to the private operators of the M3 motorway and the N18 Limerick Tunnel because traffic volumes have fallen short of guarantees given by the State, the National Roads Authority (NRA) has confirmed.

The payments, which amount to an annualised €5.9 million, are to be paid because traffic volumes on both routes have fallen below agreed thresholds.

At €5.9 million they are more than four times the authority’s revenue share from all its other public-private partnership toll motorways.

Just two such roads constructed over the past decade at a cost of €8 billion are returning a payment to the State – the M1 and the M4.

However, the combined revenue here was just €1.47 million in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available.

According the NRA, traffic volumes have also failed to trigger a profit for the State on tolls between Dublin and the cities of Waterford, Cork, Limerick and on one of the two tolls on the Dublin to Galway route.

Dublin’s M50 is no longer a public-private partnership and is wholly owned by the State. While traffic volumes on the M50 are rising significantly, the NRA is using this revenue to pay off €600 million to the WestLink bridge’s former owners, National Toll Roads, and for the €1 billion M50 widening scheme.

Commenting on the figures at the weekend, the NRA said the payments to the operators of the Limerick Tunnel and the M3 “are in line with budgeted expectations”.

It said while traffic volumes had triggered a shared loss, the contracts were such that the main loss “is borne by the PPP companies”.

A spokesman said the only guaranteed traffic volumes were on the M3 and M1, and losses on all other routes would be borne by the companies involved.

Detailed figures reveal that from September to December 2010, the most recent available, the subvention to the operators of the Limerick Tunnel cost €1.24 million.

The subvention on the M3 for October to December that year cost €547,000. Utilising the revenue from the M1 and M4 for the entire year still left a shortfall of €317,000.

The NRA spokesman said there were other benefits from the roads. “You wouldn’t have an export-led economic recovery if you didn’t have a modern road network, it’s that simple. The €8 billion investment in the major inter-urban network is giving the taxpayer a €24 billion return on that investment. We will bounce back as a country, the traffic levels will improve, and the payments will cease.”

However, according to environmental and planning group PlanBetter, a joint initiative of four groups – An Taisce, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Irish Environment and Feasta – the cost of subsiding private operators could rise to €100 million if traffic levels remained static or continued to fall in coming years.

Figures compiled by the group show traffic on the M3, which runs from Clonee to north of Kells, Co Meath, was almost 5,000 vehicles per day below the level at which subsidies must be paid to the Eurolink consortium that built it.

Traffic would have to reach 26,250 vehicles per day to avoid payments; daily traffic is “in or around 21,500” vehicles.

In the case of Limerick, the threshold for the new tunnel is 17,000 vehicles per day, but the actual level of traffic is about 13,500 vehicles daily, according to the group.

The 900m tunnel under the Shannon, west of Limerick city, is part of a 10km dual-carriageway and associated roads built by DirectRoute.