Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said he cannot give “solid cast-iron commitments” to prevent toll road increases from the start of next year “because there are contracts involved”.
He told Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty it would not be responsible to give such a guarantee but said: “We will work with the Department of Transport and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) to see if we can come up with solutions between now and the first of January.”
In the wake of news that tolls are set to increase from the start of next year Mr Varadkar said the companies involved “will want their contracts to be honoured. And they will go to court if they’re not, by the way, and probably succeed”.
The Tánaiste said the M50 was in his Dublin West constituency and for daily motorists “this will probably add something like €100 in a full year to their cost of living”.
Mr Doherty warned these increases “should not go ahead. And it is the Government’s job to make sure that they don’t”.
During Dáil Leaders’ Questions the Donegal TD said the proposed toll increases were “a massive blow to workers and families coming at a time of record fuel prices”, and a cost-of-living crisis.
The charges “disproportionately will impact on those living in rural areas who are forced to use a private car because they don’t have the options of public transport”, he said.
The M3 toll operator recorded a profit of €11 million in 2021, while the M1 operator had an operating profit of €8 million in the same year. Mr Doherty said that “due to these gold-plated Fianna Fáil contracts motorists now are being asked to fork out even more and higher toll charges”.
“These firms aren’t struggling to get by. These increases are all about protecting private profit.”
Mr Varadkar said that toll rates are linked to inflation: “There hasn’t been an increase in tolls for nine years, because inflation was very low. But now that inflation is very high, that increase kicks in.”
The rules for tolls varied depending on whether they were under Government authority, he said.
“What we’re trying to do over the course of the next few weeks is to see if we can find a way to mitigate the impact of that for motorists. There will be a cost involved, it’s around €25 million to €30 million, so not a small amount of money.
“But we are working with the Department of Transport [to] see if we can do something to mitigate or defer that increase which doesn’t kick in until the first of January.”
But Mr Doherty said there had already been increases this year on eight toll roads, adding that although the Government said it had been blindsided about the toll increases, Minister of State for Transport Hildegarde Naughton told the transport committee the department was aware of the increases since September.
The Tánaiste said he had been briefed that there had been no toll increases to maximum level in nine years “but that may well be incorrect”.
He had not been informed about the increase, he said, adding: “The Taoiseach wasn’t informed and the Cabinet wasn’t informed. But I do accept the doctrine of collective responsibility. And if Ministers were aware, well, then therefore the Government was collectively aware.”
“They [the increases] don’t kick in until January, we have a bit of time, and we are working on it,” Mr Varadkar said.
The rise in toll prices was confirmed last week by TII with the blessing of Green Party leader and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan. The aim was to compensate road operators for surging inflation, in line with their contracts.
The decision to go ahead with the highest-permitted increases – up to 60 cent per journey – faced a barrage of criticism from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians