Tolling the roads

 

If we were to believe some, National Toll Roads plc is a sort of modern-day Dick Turpin pocketing exorbitant tolls from motorists for the privilege of crossing the West Link bridge on the M50.

Last March, in the wake of a 20 per cent increase in the toll for cars from €1.50 to €1.80, Senator Shane Ross tabled a motion in the Seanad calling for tolling to be suspended to relieve chronic congestion on the motorway.

As he pointed out, when the deal was done in 1987 to give NTR the benefit of toll revenue in return for building the West Link section of the M50, traffic projections estimated that about 11,000 cars per day would use the motorway. With the current figure hovering around 90,000 vehicles per day, it is clear that the toll plaza has turned into a massive money-spinner and that this bonanza will continue until 2020 when the bridge is due to revert to the State.

However, the public sector is doing very well out of it too. A report by DKM Economic Consultants, commissioned by NTR, found that the State and other agencies, including Fingal County Council, stand to gain €936 million in revenue from corporation tax, commercial rates, Vat and a steeply rising share of the receipts from tolls. That projected sum would be sufficient to fund a major upgrade of the M50, due to start later this year. NTR, according to DKM's calculations, should rake in €616 million - more than twice as much as the €239 million it has raised in revenue since the toll bridge opened in 1990.

In the light of all of these figures, the calls made by self-styled champions of hard-pressed motorists for the Government to "buy out" NTR's interest and scrap the toll altogether seem wildly misconceived; the full cost of such a radical step is estimated by DKM at more than €1.4billion - at a time when significant investment is required in new infrastructure.

Such a scenario would be even more misplaced given that An Bord Pleanála made its approval of the M50 upgrade last May conditional on the adoption of "demand management measures" not later than three years after the scheme has been completed. With traffic forecasts showing that the motorway would otherwise be carrying more than 200,000 vehicles a day as soon as the work is finished, such measures will certainly be needed to control its use if it is not to become a linear car park.

It is now up to the Government to state how it plans to confront this looming crisis. A modern electronic and variable tolling system for the M50, and other motorways, along the lines of London's congestion charge may be the price motorists must pay for an improved road network.