Treacy Hogan: State to extract heavy toll from struggling motorists
IRISH motorists are getting used to "running on empty". What with soaring fuel prices and crippling insurance the blinking petrol light is now a familiar sight as we cruise on fumes, hoping to reach our destination without clanking to a halt on some godforsaken hard shoulder.
New plans are now afoot to further extract the last of the rapidly dwindling euro from our pockets. This time we are going to be charged new tolls based on the amount of motorway travelled.
First the good news. The current €2-€3 toll on the M50 over the former West Link will shrink to as low as 75c. The bad news, however, is that every single stretch of the upgraded motorway around the capital will also be tolled at a similar rate.
Overhead gantries will be erected the full length of the M50 catching thousands more drivers every day. The full journey will still be in the region of €2-€3 depending on whether you have a tag or are video registered for direct debit.
More than 77pc of drivers who use the M50 every day either use a pre-pay toll tag or have signed up for direct debit payment via video recognition of their number plate. Presumably this will have to be the norm when the new system is rolled out in the coming years.
Also coming down the road are up to eight new tolls on bypasses and main roads around the country. These were identified in a special road needs study commissioned by the Government and carried out by the National Roads Authority (NRA).
The study highlighted a double whammy for the Exchequer in the from of dwindling excise duty from petrol and car tax, and pointed to the need for alternative sources of cash to maintain the roads. A doubling of the existing number of tolls was the report's central recommendation.
Alas, drivers who switched over to cleaner fuels and saw their car tax reduced are now going to be punished by the new tolling arrangements when they are inevitably introduced.
Sure, Irish drivers do not pay as much as their French counterparts for the privilege of cruising on spanking new motorways.
But it does seem very unfair that in these recessionary times when it still costs more than €11,000 a year to run a small family car, that the belt is about to be tightened yet another notch on motorists who still need their car for basic needs, in the absence of a decent public transport system.
No one doubts the massive benefits of the new network of motorways linking Dublin with the main cities and regions. They have led to faster and safer journeys.
And few drivers quibble about paying under €3 for those one-off trips to Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Galway or Sligo.
But the prospect of a graduated system of tolling on motorways such as the M50 will have a profound effect on motoring in Ireland.
For a start it is likely to lead to many drivers reverting to the back roads through small villages to avoid paying even a very small charge. Nowadays, every cent counts.
Mams and dads on school runs, truckers, and local delivery drivers, will be hit hardest by the imposition of more tolls.
Secondly, the traffic volumes on some motorways are likely to decline significantly, putting pressure of contracts between the State and private toll operators who bankrolled many of our roads under expensive public-private partnerships.
Already this year, the State has been obliged to pay thousands to subsidise the toll operators of two of the country's new motorways.
The NRA 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.
The AA has found that one in six motorists is taking alternative routes to avoid paying a toll. Why? Because by the time we buy our car, tax and insure it, get the annual service, change the tyres and put in the weekly fill of petrol or diesel, keeping it on the road is definitely an uphill task.
The NRA for its part is in an invidious position. It has identified a major programme of work involving upgrading the national secondary roads network, much of which is in a very dangerous state following years of neglect.
However, the authority has been given little money to carry out this work, leaving countless local communities at the mercy of potholed death traps and killer stretches.
Bringing in more tolls may generate an expected €62m a year for the Exchequer, but Dermott Jewell, the head of the Consumers' Association of Ireland, hit the nail on the head yesterday when he questioned how much -- or rather little -- of this would actually be invested in these atrocious secondary main roads.
For whom the road tolls? Certainly not for us motorists.