Rural 'drink link' buses to run until 11pm at weekends
State-funded buses to bring drinkers home from rural pubs will run until 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
Transport Minister Shane Ross will today unveil details of the plan he hopes will get more TDs on side with his clampdown on drink-driving.
Co Wexford and Co Kerry top the list of 19 counties set to benefit from the initiative, which will cost €450,000 for six months. If it is deemed a success, Mr Ross is likely to seek extra funding in next October's Budget to expand the scheme.
Passengers will pay a nominal fee while travel pass holders and pensioners will travel for free.
In response to complaints from Fine Gael TDs about the effect tougher drink laws will have on rural Ireland, the minister tasked the National Transport Authority (NTA) with reviewing the Local Link service which is run under the Rural Transport Programme.
It subsequently drew up a list of suitable towns and villages for late night bus routes.
"The NTA has now approved funding for all 50 new services on a six-month trial basis," Mr Ross confirmed.
"The services comprise 20 extensions to existing regular public transport routes and 30 demand responsive services, across 19 counties.
"They will add 188 new trips per week to the network of rural transport services nationally, and will run on average from 6pm to 11pm, typically on Friday and Saturday evenings."
Fine Gael party chairman Martin Heydon, who was central to the proposal, told the Irish Independent it is now up to the communities to prove the service is needed.
One-fifth of the budget is to be used to highlight the new timetables.
"It's up to people now to use it or lose it," Mr Heydon said, adding that it should help alleviate rural isolation.
The Kildare TD said that while people will focus on the initiative as a 'drink link', it's not just for taking people to the pub.
"It has the potential to be a lot more than that. It'll be community-led and local business will have to put on activities now to bring people in," he added.
Co Wexford tops the list with late night buses set to run along 12 routes in the county.
Co Kerry, whose TDs Michael and Danny Healy-Rae have been among the most ferocious critics of Mr Ross's drink-driving legislation, will get eight routes.
The minister is in a battle with a number of rural TDs to get stricter laws through the Dáil. He wants to introduce a three-month mandatory ban for drivers found to have reached an alcohol limit of between 50-80mg per 100ml.
Other counties to benefit are: Carlow/Kilkenny/Wicklow (six routes), Cavan/Monaghan (5), Donegal (4), Laois/Offaly (3), Cork (3), Waterford (3), Louth/Meath/Fingal (2), Tipperary (2) and Kildare (1).
Following a funding call for applications to all 17 Local Link offices to deliver a range of trial evening and night time services, the NTA received 50 proposals from 12 of the Local Link offices.
Although the plan is being formally launched today, the NTA will consider any further proposed services from the remaining five Local Link offices.
In a statement, Mr Ross said all 50 services will be operational by the end of June and will run on a trial basis until December.
"The results of the trial will be assessed and the continuation of these services will be considered in the light of those results and the availability of funding in 2019," he said.
The plan would cost in the region of €1m to operate for a full year.