Friday, May 21, 2010

For whom the road tolls

It has been announced that two new toll roads will be opened in the next few days as part of the ongoing motorway building programme. The controversial M3 that passes close to the Hill of Tara will open as will the final section of the M7/8 from Portlaoise to Culahill. As someone who semi-regularly drives the M8 to Tipperary and Cork I will be glad to see the back of Durrow and especially Abbeyleix.

What makes these road sections stand out is that both of them are tolled. The M7/8 will have a toll booth just before the split between the Limerick and Cork roads at a cost of €1.90 for cars. Added to the other €1.90 for the Fermoy bypass and a trip to Cork (250km) will now cost €3.80. The new M3 (60km) will feature two tolls of €1.30 each meaning a trip to Cavan and beyond will now set you back a total of €2.60. This will bring the number of tolls to 11, with four in the Dublin area, one at Waterford and six on the inter-urban routes. On top of this the new tunnel/bypass at Limerick will add one more section to the mix and the long term plan is to toll the entire M50 around Dublin.

I am quite opposed to most of these tolls, not for ideological reasons, but for traffic management reasons. Take for example the Fermoy bypass - while an occasional traveler like me sees no harm in paying the toll to avoid the bottleneck in the town, a commuter from Mitchelstown working in Mahon will think twice about paying an additional €3.80 every day. Instead they will drop down the hill into Fermoy and then follow the twisty road through Rathcormac down to Watergrasshill where they will rejoin the main road. While the indirect time and fuel costs probably outweigh the toll, the instinct is to avoid the direct cost of the toll.

The situation is even worse when it applies to a distribution road like the M50 around Dublin. While it may have been planned as a bypass taking traffic from the Belfast road around to the Galway, Cork and Wexford routes without having to travel through the city centre, it has become a key route in local travel with most trips being for three or four junctions length rather than as a minor part of a longer inter-urban journey. Extending the toll to the full length of the M50 is madness as it will just force traffic back into the link roads and estates of suburban Dublin. Again the occasional traveler will just stump up, but for people who rely on the road to get quickly from on part of the city to another will suffer. Taxis and delivery vans will just pass the charges on to the customer, but what will a plumber do who is called out to a job in Firhouse and is currently in Lucan?

If you want to employ a system of tolls, the French model seems the best. Distribution roads in urban areas are not tolled to allow the towns and cities to keep the heavy traffic out of the town centre. However, once away from the city, the entire length of the inter-urban route is tolled, with the price increasing the longer the distance you travel on the road. This is also the system employed on many of the tolled turnpikes in North Eastern US with the exception that key bridges and tunnels are also tolled near cities such as New York in an effort to reduce congestion in downtown Manhattan.

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