The three Coalition leaders are locked in talks with the State’s road operator to “minimise” controversial motorway toll hikes announced in the teeth of a cost-of-living crisis, a Government Minister has said.
Hildegarde Naughton, Minister of State at the Department of Transport, said discussions between the leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) were “ongoing” to “ensure these costs are not incurred”.
“We are just not happy around the timing of this, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis,” she said.
“Those engagements are under way with TII to see what can be done so we are not increasing the costs for commuters, people travelling to work, to college, or our hauliers who are using our motorways.
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“Everything is on the table here to see what can happen.”
With the toll hikes slated for January 1st, Ms Naughton said it was hoped to find a resolution “as soon as possible”.
Last week, The Irish Times revealed motorists are to be hit with the highest-permitted toll charge hikes – up to 60 cent per journey – across the country’s motorway network within weeks.
The TII move to raise tolls in line with inflation was an “independent decision”, Ms Naughton told the Oireachtas committee on transport and communications on Wednesday.
The State-owned M50 will raise tolls by just over 9 per cent while the public-private partnership (PPP) motorways have been allowed to bring in “maximum tolls” allowed under agreements with the State.
Government officials knew about the planned motorway toll hikes in early September, before the budget was announced, Ms Naughton told the committee.
“The issue was notified internally within the Department [of Transport] and they were made aware of this early September, around the tolls increasing,” she said.
“But I suppose now it is the timing of that that is an issue.”
Committee chairman Fine Gael’s Kieran O’Donnell asked if the notification did not raise “red flags” in the department ahead of a budget billed as easing the cost-of-living burden for people.
Mr O’Donnell also questioned why it took “virtually 2½ months” between the department being informed about the hikes and their being announced a week ago.
In the wake of the announcement, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar said the increases were “a surprise coming at a very bad time”.
TII confirmed that the State and the PPP companies had “discretion” in setting the tolls. While they are restricted from increasing the tolls beyond inflation, they do not have to match rising consumer prices.
Ms Naughton said there were “probably complex” contractual issues that needed to be addressed in relation to the PPP motorways, amid a mounting backlash to the price rises as people struggled to pay for fuel.
The Minister said the hikes were particularly sensitive after a budget designed “to try to help households with the rising cost of fuel”.
“We have to do something to ensure these costs are not incurred,” she said.
Ms Naughton said while talks were happening between Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, Eamon Ryan and TII chiefs, it had been “hard to get figures on this” and that issues “need to be teased out”.
However, she pledged a “comittment from Government to do something on this... to minimise the cost on commuters”.
Mr O’Donnell told the Minister “you wouldn’t need to be a rocket scientist” to see that imposing extra charges on motorists in the present circumstances “doesn’t make sense”.
“You would have to question how this arose, this particular announcement,” he added.
The TII has been summoned before the parliamentary transport watchdog next Tuesday to be cross-examined about the toll hikes.