Pilot scheme for rural public transport to get under way


PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE:A PILOT programme to provide a new system of rural public transport by State agencies is to get under way within weeks.

Secretary general of the Department of Transport Tom O’Mahony said the project would involve school buses which he said attracted annual Government support of about €180 million, and the existing community-based public transport scheme, which received support of €11 million.

He said the Government also supplied €45 million in “public service obligation” support for regional buses while further funding was provided for Health Service Executive rural transport.

Mr O’Mahony told the Oireachtas Committee on Public Accounts the pilot scheme would involve Bus Éireann, the community schemes and the HSE. It was aimed at making use of efficiencies between the various services and would get under way at four separate locations within weeks. He did not name the locations.

However, chairman of the public accounts committee John McGuinness said he was concerned Bus Éireann might be making a profit on its support of €180 million, in supplying the school bus service, to the cost of the service users. Mr McGuinness said Bus Éireann tended to subcontract the vast majority of school bus services in rural areas and operators were struggling to survive. He said where so much money was involved transparency was an issue.

The committee was also told State revenue from public-private road tolls would dip into the red this year costing the taxpayer an estimated €5.5 million in support for toll operators.

National Roads Authority (NRA) chief executive Fred Barry said cumulative revenue from the State’s share of the public-private partnership (PPP) tolls had amounted to €2 million by the end of 2011. But he said that would change this year, due to reduced vehicle numbers on the PPP network, a factor which he attributed in turn to the recession.

The State provides subsidies on only two road schemes: the €1 billion M3 motorway in Co Meath; and the €600 million Limerick tunnel, where traffic volumes are significantly below guaranteed threshold levels. These schemes are expected to cost the State about €7 million a year between them, until volumes improve.

Another poor performer is the Waterford toll road, where Mr Barry said traffic volumes were below anything that was anticipated either by the NRA or the road builders. But he said the commercial risk there was “borne entirely by the PPP company”.

The revenue figures do not count the M50 or the Dublin Port Tunnel, which Mr Barry said were wholly owned by the State. Traffic volumes on the M50 have continued to grow throughout the recession and toll revenue has grown accordingly.

Mr Barry was critical of the original M50 contract with the private sector and agreed with committee members that it could be described as a “sweetheart deal”. He said the State had got very little in the contract in terms of how the infrastructure was to be maintained. While there was an initial loss for the developer as traffic volumes were low, there was no provision for the State to share in the revenue as the volumes grew.

Mr Barry said NRA contracts were different from the original M50 contract and were structured in such a way that should the economy pick up next year, toll revenue would increase as a result.