TAXPAYERS will have to compensate the operators of the controversial M3 motorway if the number of vehicles using it falls below target.
It is understood this is the first time such a guaranteed minimum toll income has been agreed.
There will be downward pressure on the numbers using the M3, which opens early next year, because drivers could face €11.20-a- day in tolls and there will also be a new rail service to Navan.
The Dunboyne to Clonsilla leg of the rail link to Dublin opens next year, with the full line coming on stream in 2015.
The 'minimum traffic level' clause for the M3 was included in the contract for the €650m motorway through Co Meath. It means the State will have to pay the toll operators, Eurolink, compensation if traffic flows (predicted at up to 60,000 drivers per day) fail to meet the agreed minimum target. But the National Roads Authority (NRA) has not revealed what this target is.
Labour transport spokesman Tommy Broughan warned the State might have to compensate Eurolink if the planned rail service persuaded drivers to abandon their cars.
"It seems to be running counter to what would be generally accepted public transport policy. From every point of view, it seems mad," he said.
There is no such 'minimum traffic' agreement for another toll road operated by the same company -- the Kinnegad-Kilcock section of the Dublin-Galway route.
The National Roads Authority said the minimum traffic target was "competitive" and was based on annual rather than weekly or monthly traffic levels. But it said it was unable to reveal it because the expert in that field was on holidays.
The re-opening of the Navan rail line is due to take place in two phases. The first is the 7.5km line from the planned M3 Interchange at Pace through to Clonsilla station, which is due to open next year.
It will include three new stations -- Hansfield, Dunboyne and Pace. There will be 15-minute peak hour frequency commuter services into Docklands Station in Dublin city centre. Phase two of the project will extend the rail line to Navan. It is due to be completed by 2015.
The NRA defended its decision to include a minimum traffic guarantee. A spokesman said they needed to attract as many bidders as possible to the project.
A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Noel Dempsey played down the risk of the State having to pay the toll operators compensation.
"The NRA is confident that, based on traffic volumes, the minimum traffic level will be realised," she said.