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Not very clever: ?16m bill for smart card mess

Treacy Hogan Environment Correspondent THE Comptroller and Auditor General wants to know why taxpayers are picking up a ?16m bill for a travel 'smart card' that still does not exist.

The State's top financial watchdog has ordered an investigation as damning evidence raises serious issues about the waste of public money, the Irish Independent has also exclusively learned.

Computer software being developed by State transport agencies may now have to be scrapped.

An integrated ticket allows passengers to use all public transport services - bus, rail, and Luas - with a single ticket.

While ?9.5m has already been spent, another ?7m has been allocated for the botched project this year.

Much of the money has been spent on foreign consultants with little to show for the investment.

It now appears the project spearheaded by the Rail Procurement Agency (RPA) - which is four years late and now expected to cost at least ?30m - is turning into a financial nightmare.

The embarrassing disclosure will be another blow for Transport Minister Martin Cullen who is still reeling from the ?50m electronic voting machines scandal.

The Comptroller and Auditor General's office confirmed yesterday that it has just begun a probe into the project which has had to go right back to the drawing board.

The C+AG's office said it was carrying out an audit and that the investigation had been under way for several weeks.

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It is understood the probe concentrates on the ?9.5m already spent and the various computer systems for a single smart card ticket being developed by the transport agencies involved.

Alarm bells are ringing in the Transport Department which has already contacted Padraic White, chairman of the RPA, looking for clarification on a range of issues concerning the the project. The department's secretary general, Julie O'Neill, has been informed of the investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General's office.

Various State transport agencies such as Dublin Bus had been investing heavily in their own computer software for a disposable smart card.

But this intermim measure is not the RPA's fully-integrated smart card similar to those in other European capitals and in Australia which allows passenger to hop between bus, rail and tram on a single ticket.

It was also learned yesterday that Mr Cullen has expressed deep frustration at the way the project has been dealt with by the agencies involved.

A spokesman for the minister said yesterday: "We want integrated ticketing to make life easier for the commuter. But the minister has made it clear that not a cent more will be handed over until he sees value for money and value for commuters."

He said the ?9.5m spent had gone on a Luas smart card. The RPA went looking for a company to operate an integrated ticket system but couldn't find anyone suitable. So far ?9.5m of State funds has been spent, including: ?3.615m on "national design of integrated ticketing"; ?349,000 on "appraising the project" and ?4.572m has gone on a smart card for the Luas only.

The Luas card can't be used on Dublin bus, Dart or Iarnrod Eireann services.

Integrated ticketing has been dogged by delays and controversy.

In 1999, Mary O'Rourke said proposals were being finalised to introduce integrated ticketing for all public transport in Dublin.

In 2000, she said Dublin could expect cheaper public transport in two years' time thanks to 'smart card' technology. In 2002, the transport minister, Seamus Brennan, said the system would be in place in 2004 and fully operational by 2005. It's likely the 2007 deadline will not be met.

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