The M6 motorway is in financial trouble. It works beautifully from a transport point of view and it is a joy to drive for a motorist but the private contractor that operates it is complaining that not enough revenue is being received.
Cue the violins. I’m sorry to appear so completely unsympathetic but the problems on the M6 are precisely as we had expected and predicted; indeed they bear out everything that the AA has ever said about tolls.
Frankly, they are a scourge. They make some money but they do so in an extremely inefficient way and they cause so much collateral damage that they are literally more trouble than they are worth.
If you put a toll on a given stretch of road then some of the traffic that would have used it will use unsuitable alternative routes instead. That may not matter to the NRA or the Department of Transport but it matters a great deal to the people who live or work on the alternative routes.
The very first toll in the country was at the East Link bridge in Dublin, opened in 1984. Where tolls really became unpopular among motorists was at the West Link bridge on Dublin’s M50. It was opened in 1990 and built in a partnership with National Toll Roads and Dublin County Council. The operator was given a 30 year concession to charge a toll.
The deal at the time assumed that the road would eventually carry 45,000 vehicles per day and revenue share was calculated on that basis. What they didn’t predict was the Celtic Tiger boom. The road eventually became so busy that it was carrying over 100,000 vehicles per day.
National Toll Roads were the big winners. Revenues were far higher than anyone predicted but they had their deal and so they made a fortune. Eventually the State bought them out in 2008.
The AA had a series of fights with a series of governments on the subject of tolls right through the 1990s and 2000s. Sadly, we lost most of those arguments. Tolls were prevented in some locations, like the Jack Lynch Tunnel in Cork, but in lots of places the wisdom at the time was that they were a perfect way to raise revenue.
If you use a route occasionally, for example to go to the airport, you will probably pay a toll and think it reasonable value. If you have to commute along the route every day, especially in a commercial vehicle, then you almost certainly will not. At least not all of the time.
Hence places like Drogheda and Fermoy are still full of trucks day in and day out despite having multi-million euro bypasses. Residents and businesses have been bitterly disappointed with the experience.
Some examples are worse than others. The M3 Motorway runs from the M50 towards Cavan and has two separate tolls within less than 50 kilometres. Motorists are ignoring it in droves and continuing to use the ramshackle and dangerous old road instead.
Indeed the NRA, which entered a deal that saw them take on part of the risk if the routes were under-used, had to pay €15 million recently to the operators to compensate them for the fact that people are ignoring the M3 and the Limerick Tunnel. Frankly, it is a mess.
And now we have the M6 Operators, Celtic Roads Group, making similar noises. Traffic volumes were projected to be over 15,000 per day but are working out at less than 10,000. This is partly because of the downturn and partly because of people deliberately avoiding the toll booths. The project is in deficit to the tune of €30 million.
Their proposed solution is to charge motorists more and install extra toll booths along the M6. Sorry guys but that is a non-runner. The risks were clear when the investment was made and in this case the NRA is not on the hook to make up lost revenue, as was known in advance. You simply cannot have the option to hit the motorist again just because your numbers are not stacking up.