State paying €111,000 a week to toll road operators
THE State has paid thousands to subsidise the toll operators of two of the country's new motorways.
It comes as the National Roads Authority (NRA) has been told not to build any new roads because there is no money available.
The NRA last night admitted it paid almost €1.8m over a four-month period last year to the private operators of the N18 Limerick Tunnel motorway and the M3 motorway in Meath.
The money is being paid because the NRA guaranteed a certain number of vehicles would use each privately-funded road when they opened.
Because the numbers have not always been reached, the roads authority has had to make up for the loss of tolls. And unless traffic volumes in the Limerick Tunnel and on the M3 motorway improve, the NRA faces the prospect of paying more than €5.7m in 2011 to the private operators.
New figures show payments to the operators of the Limerick Tunnel between September and December last year amounted to €1.24m, while payments for the M3 Clonee-to-Kells motorway between October and December came to €547,000.
This works out at an average of €111,000 per week.
The NRA said the traffic guarantee was only in place on the M3 and Limerick Tunnel because they were expensive and challenging projects to deliver.
A spokesman added the authority had been paid €1.47m last year by the operators of other motorways which were turning a profit, including the M1 to Belfast and M4 at Kilcock. "The way to attract bids with more competition is you offer a guarantee for high-risk jobs," NRA spokesman Sean O'Neill said. "This is called a debt-payment guarantee. The reason they're in these contracts is the size of the M3 and the complexity in building the Limerick tunnel. If you give this guarantee, you get more bidders and better prices."
The Limerick Tunnel was built by a consortium called Direct Route (Limerick) Ltd, which includes one of the State's biggest building contractors, Sisk, and AIB.
The tunnel cost €660m to build and was opened to traffic in July last year. It was designed to take 22,000 vehicles a day from Limerick city centre and includes a 675-metre tunnel under the River Shannon.
Tolls range from 90c for a motorbike to €1.80 for a car and €5.70 for a truck.
The M3 is operated by Eurolink Motorway Operation Ltd, made up of Spanish company Cintra Concesiones de lnfraestructuras de Transporte SA, and SIAC Construction Ltd.
It opened last summer and cost almost €1bn to build. Tolls range from €1.30 for a car and €3.30 for a truck, and 23,000 vehicles were expected to use it each day.
The NRA defended the payments, saying the roads were needed for the economy and that the payments would cease when the financial situation improved.