December 22, 2004

The great toll bridge rip-off

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This article, like every other one in this newspaper and indeed almost every sentence in every book you read in English, will have been typed with a QWERTY keyboard, named after the first six letters on the top left-hand side of the keyboard. Amazing as it may sound, this keyboard was designed in 1873 as an exercise in anti-engineering.

The QWERTY keyboard is actually constructed to slow down the speed and increase the effort of typing. There is a whole series of layout faults on the keyboard aimed explicitly at frustrating the typist. For example, the most common letters are scattered all over the board in different rows, rather than concentrated together and, where they are concentrated, they are on the left-hand side of the keyboard. The aim is to slow down right-handed typists, the vast majority of its users.

In 1873,when typewriters were primitive things, the keys used to stick together if the typist typed too quickly so the manufacturers conspired to create the most inefficient, frustrating, convoluted keyboard possible. So, rather than facilitate the human brain, the keyboard sought to hamstring it.

By the 1930s, the problem of the jamming keyboard had been technically overcome and trials showed that a new layout could double the speed of typing.

But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by that time. The vested interests of millions of typists, teachers, typewriter (and subsequently computer) salespeople and, of course, manufacturers have crushed efforts to introduce a more efficient keyboard for the past 70 years.

This episode mocks most economic and financial logic that contends technology is an irrepressible force which will be ultimately harnessed by all to make us more efficient. This is not always true. In reality, QWERTY stories are repeated everywhere, as there will always be vested interests that are doing well out of the status quo and which force the rest of us to accept second best.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Irish roads, particularly on the M50 around Dublin. We are being ripped off on the M50 toll bridge in what can only be described as highway robbery.

At this stage, let’s establish a few facts. I am not an engineer. I have never built a road or a bridge. But, like hundreds of thousands of ordinary Irish citizens, my life is more affected by the M50 toll bridge than by, for example, whether Ian Paisley gets his photos or becomes First Minister in the North.

On Tuesday, I spent close to half an hour waiting to pay – to pay for God’s sake! On Wednesday, when lots of attention was focused on the North, the owners of the toll bridge announced that the toll would be going up by 20 per cent when inflation is running at 2.5 per cent. What is the state doing about this?

Nothing.

Let us examine what is happening here. A bridge that was supposed to speed up traffic is actually slowing it down. Get your head around that. This is the QWERTY keyboard of 21st century Ireland. Moreover, the daily tailbacks are not caused by an accident or a narrowing of the road, but the modern day equivalent of a highwayman.

What are we paying for? A small bridge. Not a great work of engineering, but a small common-or-garden bridge.

There might have been an argument years ago for a private toll company to build such a bridge because the state’s coffers were not full, but today there is no reason.

Yet last year, the same company was allowed to build a second bridge to toll even more at a time when the government has loads of cash. Why? Would it not have been smarter for the state to build the second bridge last year, reduce the toll or eliminate tolls altogether, which would force competition on the first bridge, bringing down prices across the board? Who is negotiating these sweetheart deals on our behalf?

The M50 toll bridge is probably the most blatant, shame-faced rip-off foisted on the citizens of this country.

Here we have a private sector bottleneck on a public sector highway.

The state funnels us, like lemmings, from a public highway (which we paid for with taxes) into a private sector jam.

So not only does the state pay for all the road up to the 500-metre stretch of bridge, but it is complicit in the rip-off because it actually ushers the motorist into the clutches of the toll.

There is no alternative route once you get on the M50.You are automatically a sucker for the toll bridge. Therefore, this is, a �no risk – all return’� venture for the owners.

It should be no surprise that the share price of National Toll Roads (NTR) has gone from �10 to �18 this year alone.

This column blames neither the management nor the shareholders of the company. They are simply responding to apriceless opportunity � and who could blame them? It’s nice work if you can get it. The issue is the state’s role in the rip-off. Would the French allow a toll bridge on the Paris p�ripherique?

They would in their oeil. Would the English countenance a toll on theM25?

No way.

How is it done in other countries? In France or Italy, for example, the toll roads operate as an alternative to the competition of the national routes. If you want to get somewhere quickly you pay the price for it. The toll company builds the roads from start to finish usually several hundred kilometres of highway at a minimum. It takes a big risk and gets a commensurate return.

In Ireland, the opposite occurs. The state builds the road and then gives a private company the monopoly to extort money at the bridge. This is a win/win proposition for the company and a lose/lose outcome for the motorist. It would be funny, if it were not so serious.

In Croatia, a country which is four times poorer than Ireland and not a member of the EU, it is possible to drive on a newly-constructed motorway from Split to Zagreb (500 kilometres) and pay one toll. This motorway has been blasted through mountains, has monumental bridges over deep gorges and is four-laned. Does this poor country demand a toll over bridges or through tunnels? Clearly not. Would it entertain daily tailbacks on its main ring roads?

Of course not.

In Ireland, we simply have to wake up and demonstrate against our state for negotiating such a rip-off supposedly on our behalf.

On Wednesday, when the 20 per cent increase in the toll was being debated in the Seanad, the French government opened the world’s tallest bridge, connecting Clermont-Ferrand with Beziers across the Tarn valley.

The Millau Viaduct is 23 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower, spans 2.5 kilometres, has seven towers 387 metres high and was described by its builder, the famous British architect Lord Foster, as the �closest a drive will ever come to flying’�.

The company that runs it estimates that it will make a 15 per cent return on equity over the lifetime of its 75-year lease. What return will NTR make on its investment in the M50 toll bridge?

The French and Croatian examples simply serve as reminders as to how things should and could be done. It is not a matter of income or national wealth, but of organisation. The cost of the toll is only half the problem. The cost of the hourly tailbacks on the economy is enormous.

The wasted productivity, wasted opportunities and waste of valuable time are what economists refer to as �negative externalities’�. These costs add up to millions of euro a week. So, in effect, the M50 toll bridge is costing us much more than just the amount of the toll.

What can the state do about it now? It has signed contracts with NTR that the company entered in good faith, so the company cannot be blamed. As Shane Ross suggested in the Senate, the state should seriously consider nationalising the toll bridge for the good of the citizen. It must buy out the contract because the toll bridge is slowing down, rather than facilitating, traffic.

The M50 toll bridge is the problem, not the solution to our ring-road traffic.

For any smart politician with an eye on the Dublin electorate, this would also be an extremely popular move.

It would be good for the state, the citizens and the economy. The vested interests that are making out like bandits would also be happy, as they would get an exorbitant price for the asset.

The magnificent Millau Viaduct, an amazing engineering feat by any standards, cost �396 million to build.

Estimates put the price of buying out the poxy M50 toll-bridge at �300 million. Difficult as it is, the state has to bite the bullet.

NTR have us over a legal barrel, and the law and private property rights must be respected. But unless we want to burden the motorway with the equivalent of the QWERTY keyboard, the government should act on our behalf – and quickly – before the M50 extension at Carrickmines is completed next September.


  1. Dermot McNally

    There are a lot of valid points in this article, but one
    of them is misleading, albeit not quite mistaken. The M25
    route does have a toll on it, at the Dartford
    tunnel/bridge river crossing. It’s true that, at that
    point, the M25 is discontinuous – the stretch serving
    bridge and tunnel is not Motorway and is designated A282.
    Nonetheless, if you follow the M25 in the 2-O-Clock to 4-O-
    Clock sector, you’ll find that toll just as unavoidable as
    Westlink is on the M50.

    Frankly, the M25 users get a much greater feat of
    engineering for their toll, but therein lies another
    argument.

    Dermot

  2. david mc williams

    fair point dermot, i had forgotten about the dartford
    tunnel. regards, david

  3. Ralph Benson

    Sick of paying? Senator Shane Ross has a form on his
    website to send a message of protest to Bertie Ahern,
    Martin Cullen and Jim Barry, CEO of NTR
    Go to http://www.shane-ross.ie

  4. cyril taylor

    Can anyone tell me how much the toll is to go lthrough the
    Dartford Tunnel (and all the other tolls in England if
    they know them)

  5. Andrew

    David,
    While I agree with your analysis of the situation regarding
    the NTR West Link Bridge, i do take issue with your (and
    Sen. Ross’s) suggestion that the State buy out the contract.
    Firstly, my understanding is that the bridge is due to
    revert back to Sate ownership in 10 years time (correct me
    if I am misinformed here). Clearly it would seem pointless
    to shell out more than €300m for a bridge that will return
    to the public in a few years anyway. Think of the
    opportunity cost of that €300m, in terms of what it could
    achieve if spent on education, the health service, a
    national stadium etc.
    Secondly, what signal would it send to future potential
    investors in infrastructure if the government started
    deciding to renege on contracts, interfere in activities
    entered into in good faith, and sought to re-appropriate
    assets. Having worked in the Finance world yourself, i am
    sure you can appreciate how such risk and uncertainty can
    impact on the cost of credit. Rash actions can easily
    dissuade future private sector involvement.
    Finally, it is a bit unfair to suggest that private and
    corporate tax payers in Kerry, Cork, Donegal, Clare etc.
    cough up to pay for a bridge that principally impacts on
    the public and enterprise in the greater Dublin Region.
    There are no easy answers to the disaster on the West Link,
    however, popular ideas such as state acquisition of private
    assets may not the panacea either.

    Andrew

  6. Clinton

    I am really tired of seeing and hearing the irish complain
    and give out about this and that and do nothing about it
    we really are great at doing that, just to relaxadazy!!!!
    So my question is when the hell are we actually going to
    do something about this m50 toll? People who use it are
    being screwed yet we still use it. A major protest should
    be set up, block it off at rush hour traffic etc. It
    worked in Scotland when nobody used the bridge they took
    the toll away, why cant it work here?

  7. Mark

    Great article David. I don’t argree with you from a
    political point of view normally, but regarding this matter
    you are spot on. It’s a national scandal!

  8. Tom Farrell

    Hi David,
    Another great example of the ‘must be invented here’
    syndrome that plagues us. Realistically, the political
    courage simply isn’t there. As a (sad) compromise, maybe
    the vested interests involved could be ‘encouraged’ to
    invest in low cost car sensors that would automatically
    bill the driver whenever he/she passes the toll point (via
    wireless communication). This system works succesfully in
    many places and I have used it myself in Singapore. It
    removes the frustration and hidden cost of conjestion, but
    unfortunately, it doesn’t address the root cause of the
    problem.
    Rgds,
    Tom

  9. Paul Mc Carthy

    David I full agree with your views and that of the
    contributors comments..may I add my own. I attended a
    meeting in Morans Hotel recently hosted by Shane Ross who
    wants that Rip-Off toll removed within 2 years. Its a
    daunting mammoth task considering all the political twists
    and turns this government will take to avoid
    it..especially as Martin Cullen gets €1.00 out of the
    €1.80 rip-off. We all understand that this will only work
    with the support of the public. My understanding is that
    the Irish Public are “SOFT” and somewhat unprepared to
    bear their teeth.They expect the likes of public
    representatives to do the dirty work for them. Im afraid
    this will not happen. Apart from the obvious concerns
    about the impact of this Toll Bridge let me also make the
    following points:

    Port Tunnell;
    The M.50 will be bombarded with all the traffic (Heavy
    Goods) exiting this tunnell..little of it will be using
    the M.1 north as most of our industrial regions feed off
    the M.50.

    Ikea:
    Another major traffic shock to the M.50 when it opens..I
    do not accept the bullshit about staggered opening hours.

    Dublin Airport:
    The second terminal will again route more traffic towards
    the M.50

    Adamstown:
    Where are most of these people going to work…and without
    any decent public transport its cars and more cars on to
    the M.50.

    Dublin City:
    I read that Dublin will expand in population by between
    600/800,000 over the next 10/15 years…???

    We are facing into meltdown with an overstretched economy,
    the dogs on the street can read it. Why cant the Political
    Establishment see it..we are being stroked and
    manipulated.
    One other point..I move out to Enfield in 2002..what I
    have noticed more and more is the use of all the “Back-
    Roads” by motorists to avoid the M.50..this is also having
    a massive impact on small rural areas and is breaking up
    these small/dangerous roads that were designed for horse &
    carts at speeds of 15kmph..not 80/100kmph. So the impact
    of the Toll/M.50 has far reaching impacts right across the
    periphal counties.

    Now..may i say something about:
    Highest Road Taxes in the world
    Highest VRT charges in Europe.
    Highest Running Costs for cars in Europe.
    €8.00 out of evey €10.00 of petrol we put in our tanks
    goes to the Government.

    I think this government is forcing people to immigrate…!!
    and that has far more serious consequences for not only
    us..but for our children.
    Paul Mc Carthy
    (Blow-In) Dulchie
    Co Meath

  10. Sean Breathnach

    All I can say in response to this article (which I
    completely agree with) is: “Only in Ireland”.

    I have been moving back and fourth from Ireland to Western
    Europe for 5 years now with my work and every passing month
    makes me more angry and frustrated about how Ireland does
    things and moreover how easy we let ourselves be made fools
    of at home. The M50 tool bridge is one point. The general
    state of the infrastructure like after years of
    underinvestment and political scandalis another. Lets see
    if we can pick a few shining examples of how the irish show
    themselves to the outside world.
    1. Passenger arrives in Dublin airport and cannot even get
    a light rail service to Dublin city center (rememebr we are
    supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world)

    2. Dublin port Tunnnell, was designed to somehow forget
    about been able to allow the largest lorry trailers to pass
    through it…..oh, won’t the trip down the quays be so much
    more efficient for these huge trucks…. sure never mind
    about the “Port” trucks for “Post Traffic” …

    3. Luas. Two lines that don’t even meet. The crazy thing is
    the government, I read, are NOW considering joining
    them….WHAT ABOUT DOING THIS IN THE FIRST PALCE ? And how
    much extra will it cost us ?

    4. Prices in Ireland….
    In Antwerp in Belgium a New 3 Bed Apartment in a new
    development 5 mins from the city center costs 160,000 Euro.
    A 2 Bed apartment beside the M50 in Tallaght (11 miles from
    City Center) costs 380,000 Euro…..do the math…. where
    does the 200,000 Euro plus come from ?

    Ah yes, Céad Míle Fáilte, Welcome one and all to Ireland
    2005…. it’s a sad thing how much we have changed even in
    the last 5 years….. we were allot better when we had
    little money (sorry, we still do have little money
    personally, it’s just that now most of it comes from credit
    from the bank….and we think we are rich……)

  11. Phelim Pekaar

    Andrew (2/16/2005)
    Some good points regarding the buy back of the toll bridge
    by the Government. Does anyone know when the bridges
    revert back to the Government? I am sure that the Westlink
    (bridge No.1) has already been been around for more than
    ten years. I am also quite sure that the East link was
    also supposed to revert back to the Government. If I am
    not mistaken I think the agreement is that after a ten year
    period the Government can start benefitting from the toll
    and taking a percentage as a hidden tax. Hence after 20
    years we are still paying a toll on the East Link. The
    biggest hidden tax we are all paying as David pointed out
    is the wasted time we spend sitting to pay for the toll.

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