The Coalition leaders are discussing proposals to scrap motor toll increases due to come into force in January, leaving the State on the hook for up to €25 million in payments to road operators to make up for lost income.
The rise in toll prices was confirmed last week by State agency Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) with the blessing of Green Party leader and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan. The aim was to compensate road operators for surging inflation, in line with their contracts.
The decision to go ahead with the highest-permitted increases – up to 60 cent per journey – faced a barrage of criticism from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians, who argued against imposing further costs on tens of thousands of motorists at a time when the Government is spending billions to ease acute cost-of-living pressures.
[ Eamon Ryan ‘reluctant’ to tackle toll increases if it comes at cost of other priorities ]
Concerns were raised with Mr Ryan at the regular leaders’ meeting on Monday evening, which ended with a commitment from the Minister to review the matter.
“We will see what we can do to try and ease pressure on people,” Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Monday in reply to questions about road toll increases.
He declined to specify whether the toll increases would go ahead as planned. “Suffice to say we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, and the whole emphasis to date has been on trying to reduce costs of public services,” Mr Martin told reporters in Dublin.
Mr Ryan had insisted earlier that any Government compensation for operators to meet the cost of holding tolls steady would be akin to “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, leaving less money for public transport or road maintenance. There is no enthusiasm in the Greens for the State to bear costs, funded from elsewhere, for private road operators.
However, public criticism of the toll increases from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar reflected Fine Gael disquiet at a measure seen as damaging politically after budget moves to ease inflationary pressures.
In addition to Mr Varadkar’s public dismissal of the planned toll increase, Minister of State for Transport Hildegarde Naughton expressed reservations privately when TII signalled it was going ahead last week. Criticism on the Fianna Fáil wing of the Coalition was directed at the lack of Department of Transport consultation with other Government figures until shortly before TII made its intentions known publicly.
“There are issues that Eamon [Ryan] has highlighted, in terms of the independent nature of TII, but we will see what we can do to try and ease pressure on people,” Mr Martin told reporters.
[ The Irish Times view on road toll increases ]
Companies with public-private partnership contracts to operate roads have the right to increased toll income as inflation rises so the Government faces the prospect of having to make up to the deficit. People involved in Government discussions said the likely cost would be up to €25 million, depending on traffic flows.
There was no Department of Transport comment on the likely cost of such a move.
Such sums are perceived to be manageable from the perspective of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, although questions have been raised as to whether Mr Ryan and the Greens would seek a political quid pro quo in return for changing the plan. That is potentially sensitive for the Coalition because difficult discussions loom on climate change targets.
With inflation rising 8.6 per cent in the 12 months to August, a person with knowledge of road contracts said private companies could pursue the Government in the courts if their road income did not match inflation. “They have us over a barrel,” the person said.
Many tolls rose by 10 cent in January but record-low inflation for years before the recent surge meant that charges had been largely static.