Monday 23 April 2018

'The political world tends to switch investment on and off, and it's very inefficient'

Outgoing roads' boss tells Paul Melia his legacy is overseeing a 'fairly anonymous' public agency which quietly goes about managing 5,500km of road network

‘We first mentioned it (multi-point tolling on the M50), and there was an outcry of objection. A tipping point will come,’ says Fred Barry, warning of congestion on the country’s busiest road
‘We first mentioned it (multi-point tolling on the M50), and there was an outcry of objection. A tipping point will come,’ says Fred Barry, warning of congestion on the country’s busiest road

WHEN Fred Barry took the helm of the National Roads Authority (NRA) in January 2005, the semi-state had a "myriad of problems".

At the time, the Dublin Port Tunnel was under construction with reports it was leaking and "going to go on fire". The M50 was in disarray, with motorists forced to queue for up to an hour to get through the tolling points. There were also major concerns about plans to build the M3 motorway close to the Hill of Tara.

"It featured in the media in the same way as the health sector, and it wasn't very favourably," he says.

"There were very big cost overruns, and there was a lot of controversy about whether things were being done correctly. There were over-promises and under-delivery, poor communications with the media and public and a somewhat defensive attitude."

The chief executive retires at the end of June after a decade in charge, a period in which €15bn was spent upgrading the national road network. Today, it comprises 5,500kms of road, of which 900km is motorway and 300km dual carriageway.

Journey times between major urban centres have been sharply reduced, the €800m Port Tunnel has been a resounding success, removing HGVs from the capital's streets and representing "very, very good value for money", while the barrier-free M50 is considered an exemple of how to toll large volumes of traffic without the need for booths.

But not all road schemes have been a success. Traffic volumes on the €200m Waterford are lower than expected.

The agency is also paying compensation to the operators of the tolled Limerick Tunnel and M3, €7.8m in 2013 alone, because traffic volumes aren't at the levels projected under the public private partnership (PPP) contract.

They're "coming down bit by bit", he says, noting that on other schemes the NRA benefits from a 'superprofits' cap, meaning it receives a share of the revenue once it goes beyond a certain threshold. This totalled €726,000 from the M4 Kilcock-Kinnegad route in 2013. Another €608,000 came from the motorway service areas under a revenue-sharing scheme.

Traffic volumes are also of concern on the country's busiest road, Dublin's M50, albeit for different reasons. Following a €1bn upgrade in 2010, growth stands at 12pc year-on-year and there is every danger it will become congested in the near-term unless multi-point tolling - or a series of tolling points - are introduced to discourage demand for shorter trips.

"I speak very directly to all the ministers," he says. "We first mentioned it (multi-point tolling on the M50) in 2006 during the Fianna Fail/Green administration, and there was an outcry of objection.

"The political world was horrified. The Taoiseach correctly said it wouldn't be decided by the NRA, and he was right. (But) the traffic will get much worse, and we will get abuse. A tipping point will come where the public will look for something to be done. At that stage, the congestion will be awful."

Another concern is the lack of continuous investment in all infrastructure, not just transport, which could hamper economic growth. While much work have been completed, there's a need for a new road between Cork and Limerick; the Galway bypass is a priority, and new roads are needed in Donegal, Limerick, Cork and other counties.

"The political world tends to switch investment on and off, and it's very inefficient and you wonder do people understand you don't build a road or Luas line today and that's it. As the economy grows, requirements grow, and continuous investment is needed.

"I wouldn't like people to think we have the view the infrastructure is wrapped. There's thousands of kilometres of single carriageway roads which need works and are substandard.

"It's local work and very important. There's a lot of that still to be done. The funding levels in most similarly sized countries are considerably higher than we are at the moment."

The NRA employs just over 100 staff, Similar-sized agencies in other countries have between 500 and 800, and much of the reason why numbers are so low is because of the close co-operation it has with local authorities and private sector, with much of the ongoing maintenance and operational work being carried out by the latter.

"We have very good relationships with local authorities, but that's not to say we don't have argy bargies," he says.

"Local authorities have bodies on the ground, people who are very familiar with local circumstances which is so important when developing projects and doing route selections. You have people more familiar with communities, and the local councillors and political representatives have somebody local to deal with.

"If there are issues that need sorting out, they get solved well. We oversee land acquisitions, but the best-placed people to do the deals are the people in local authorities. What we have works very well at the moment."

The NRA is in the process of merging with the Railway Procurement Agency, and the new agency will be re-named 'Transport Infrastructure Ireland'. Over time, it is expected to take controls of all PPP contracts across the public sector, but is unlikely to grow in a multi-faceted agency. "I'd imagine from the government's perspective that it doesn't want a transport agency to become too big because if state agencies become too big they're harder to manage," he says. "Huge changes" are coming through technology, he adds.

"We see smart cars developing, we see traffic flow measures of congestion and weather reports sourced and transmitted electronically. We have information in real time that we didn't have a decade ago.

"As we move (forward) it's not just driverless cars but cars interacting with infrastructure in a way we can't imagine. It is likely that cars on roads in the future will be driven in platoon style, with the speed regulated by the infrastructure itself. Traffic lights will be sequenced to cater for demand.

"We're not quite sure where that will lead to, but it will lead to vast improvements in safety and throughput."

His biggest success over his ten-year term is not necessarily the motorway network. Surprisingly, it's the NRA's ability to keep out of the public eye.

"The job of a public sector agency is delivering services. It isn't supposed to be central to the political world, or to develop international brands of its own. A well-functioning public agency should be delivering services in a low key way, not to be in the headlights all the time because it's trying to drive its own agenda.

"I think we've done an incredible job in the last decade. You can rely on it (the network), barring a catastrophe.

"I'd say the biggest development is we're now in the background, managing €1bn of business. We have reverted to what we ought to be, a fairly anonymous public sector agency. That for me is the biggest success."

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