New money for old roads

We have to be thankful for small victories when they come along these days. We have become used to the language of recession and scarcity. When we look back on the amount of money that we had to spend during the boom years it really does feel like a different country.

So I was modestly pleased earlier this month to see that our nagging has paid off to an extent. The government announced that an additional €50 million will be allocated to the repair and maintenance of secondary roads. That brings the total this year to around €400 million which is still not enough.

Every county in Ireland will want to lay claim to some of that modest bounty. While we have a main road network that is in reasonable shape for the most part the secondaries are a different matter.

Potholes are a scourge. We see that literally every day of the week in the types of breakdown call outs that the AA is getting these days. Punctures, damage to shocks and suspensions, damage to wheels and tyres have become more common reasons to call us out.

Those may be relatively minor roads but many of them are important local links. They are also roads on the tourist trail. Visitors from overseas pick up hire cars and take to the by-ways to get off the beaten track and see a bit of the real Ireland. Having experienced our ‘proper’ roads first they are in for a bit of a shock.

They will be more shocked again when they see that these tiny roads all have smart looking speed limit signs that laughably display an 80kmh limit. These exist because of a ridiculous wrinkle in the law that obliges local authorities to display a speed limit even on very minor roads that have never been assessed.

That particular mess may soon be cleared up. At the AA’s prompting the Department of Transport has been looking at speed limits generally and although it has taken far too long we do now expect to see their report in the next few weeks. Among other things it should mean the end of a lot of absurd and contradictory limits.

We are now in the sixth successive year of under-investment in roads. To make matters worse we had the two freak winter events of 2010. The big freezes of that extraordinary year did a lot of damage. In many areas old roads crumbled up like breadcrust when the thaw came. There was some extra cash for repairs but not enough. That pothole that you hit a wallop last week is really down to the extra cost of the 2010 damage.

The signs of neglect are there to be seen. Even relatively simple measures like cutting back hedgerows and tidying up verges are a struggle for local authorities who fully understand the need but just don’t have the money.

To be fair, Junior Transport Minister Alan Kelly admitted recently that the allocation for roads was inadequate. He was launching a pretty small scheme whereby just over €10 million would be available to communities or groups at local level that wanted to fix their local roads themselves. The scheme envisages local either raising money themselves or donating materials and labour, and the State would then top up their efforts.

When it was announced a lot of motorists were cynical about what looked for all the world as if we were being asked to fix potholes ourselves. While I can understand how incongruous that appears schemes like this are better than nothing.

This has to be seen in the context of how much money they are already getting from us. More than half of what we spend on fuel is tax. Road Tax costs us about a billion euro annually. Vat, VRT, tolls and insurance levies all add up to mean that Irish drivers collectively contribute around €4.5 billion to the government coffers every year. So an extra few quid to sort the worst of the lousy roads is not exactly generosity.

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