Fears for vulnerable as €1m cut from transport
RURAL transport services are going to be hit with a cut of almost €1m to their funding in a major shake-up of the service.
It has raised fears among communities that transport services for older people and those with disabilities in isolated rural areas will be axed.
The number of groups responsible for running the services is going to be cut from 35 to 18 – and the final decision on whether routes will be retained or withdrawn will be made next February.
Junior minister for transport Alan Kelly insisted that the number of rural transport routes would not be radically cut despite the planned 6pc cut – or €978,000 – in the €16.3m rural transport budget.
"What we are looking for isn't a cost-saving exercise. I would say that a large amount of the services will continue. If we did nothing, some of them would close down because of the financial strain they are under," he said.
The changes are being made after a damning report raised "serious concerns" about the wage bills and efficiency of some of the groups.
It is understood that the maximum salaries were under €60,000, but there was concern about how many were in better-paid management positions and the lack of government control over wage increases.
Mr Kelly acknowledged that there had been concerns about the salaries.
"Many of them are absolutely fantastic and brilliant but there were issues with others. Administration costs were too high," he said.
The 35 rural transport groups will now be replaced by 18 transport co-ordination units based in local authorities. Each local authority will prepare annual rural transport plans which the units will have to work to. This will give councillors a role in rural transport for the first time.
Mr Kelly said that staff in the groups would be either re-hired or offered voluntary redundancy if they did not want to move to new locations.
In the past, school bus drivers used to pick up members of the public, but this practice has been long abandoned due to child protection and insurance concerns.
Mr Kelly said that he expected the new units to be able to provide passenger services on empty school buses – with pilot projects due to begin soon.
"School buses are going in and out of towns yet there's nobody on them as they come back in. Yet the diesel has to be burnt and the drivers have to be paid," he said.
But Fianna Fail transport spokesman Timmy Dooley said Mr Kelly's announcement had left many unanswered questions for the 35 rural transport companies. And Independent Kerry South TD Michael Healy Rae criticised the lack of detail.
"I still have concerns for elderly people living in remote rural areas who want to know that they will have the services to go to their local shops and post office," he said.
Mr Kelly said elderly people would still be able to use their free travel pass on the rural transport services.
"The proposed transport co-ordination units will also be given the power to award new rural hackney licences in areas where there is a poor service," Mr Kelly said.
Mr Kelly said they would be administered on behalf of businesses and community groups and would not be in competition with existing hackney licences.