Motorway firm says upwards-only tolls promised

 

A ROAD toll operator accused of overcharging motorists using a stretch of the M1 motorway by €26,000 weekly claims it was effectively promised via a Dáil statement last year by former minister for transport Noel Dempsey that the relevant laws provided only for tolls to be increased, the Commercial Court heard yesterday.

The National Roads Authority, which has brought proceedings against Celtic Roads Group (Dundalk) Ltd, denies the minister’s statement could be regarded as a promise or amounted to a legitimate expectation that tolls could only be revised upwards. The statement was made after the authority agreed a contract with Celtic in 2004, it added.

The authority claims the bylaws do not make express reference to an upwards-only toll system and provide a mechanism to allow for a decrease. The court heard the consumer price index – which is used to calculate the maximum toll allowed – fell in 2009 for the first time in 50 years. The bylaws allow for a “cushion” of a year, so tolls did not fall but, after the index rose slightly in 2010, the authority said the toll should fall.

Mr Justice Peter Kelly said the formula used to work out the maximum allowable toll was “labyrinthine” and remarked there “must be an easier way to do this”.

Shane Murphy SC for the authority also yesterday disputed claims the authority contributed to a legitimate expectation that tolls would only rise because of various presentations made by it.

Celtic Roads was effectively seeking to be insulated “from all external realities”.

Mr Murphy was opening the action before Mr Justice Kelly in which the authority alleges Celtic Roads has breached the relevant bylaws in its toll charges for 2011 on the Gormanston to Monasterboice stretch of the M1 motorway. Celtic had entered into a contract with the authority in February 2004 to operate the relevant toll facilities.

The case centres on the proper construction of the relevant bylaws and was initiated late last month. It was given an accelerated hearing date after the judge noted, if the authority was correct, that there was no means for overcharged motorists to be compensated.

The authority claims motorists using the relevant M1 stretch have been overcharged since January 1st. As some 11 million vehicles used the MI last year, motorists will be overcharged by €1.39 million this year unless the tolls are reduced.

It claims tolls should have been reduced from January 1st last. Motorists using the N8 Rathcormac-Fermoy bypass, the N25 Waterford bypass and the M4 Kinnegad-Enfield-Kilcock motorway will also be overcharged if its interpretation of the bylaws is correct, the authority alleges.It also rejects defence arguments that the bylaws provide only for upwards-only tolls. The tolls now exceed the maximum tolls chargeable under the appropriate formula provided for in the bylaws, it claims.

Celtic Roads has queried the consistency of the authority’s conduct in relation to the bylaws. The authority effectively operates the M50 itself and appears not have to have reduced tolls there, it claims.