ONE of the largest infrastructure projects ever completed in the South-East of Ireland is a white elephant. The new, iconic bridge over the River Suir linking counties Kilkenny and Waterford was predicted to carry 14,000 vehicles a day when it opened in October 2009 but now struggles to meet a third of that quota.
An investigation by the Kilkenny People has revealed that the toll bridge, known locally as the 'Cat-Flap', is now handling an average of 5,500 customers a day and according to the National Roads Authority, is overcharging each trip by 10 cent.
Most commuters around Waterford are avoiding the bridge because it is too expensive and it is still easier to go through the city than pay a toll, especially at off-peak times.
The E55 million suspension bridge was built partly to alleviate pressure on the Edmund Rice draw-bridge on the city's quay but this has not happened. Neither has the new by-pass been successful in getting people to change their motoring habits.
It has been claimed by the NRA that the toll operators are overcharging hard pressed motorists by 10 cents on every trip. This is now the subject of High Court proceedings for which the tax-payer will be forced to pay.
A spokesperson for Celtic Roads Group (CRG) , which operates the bridge told the Kilkenny People that the economic downturn was to blame for the bridge's poor performance and the lower than expected usage. "The road is only open one year and also when the road was planned and being constructed the current economic environment was not envisaged. Over time usage will increase," the spokesperson said.
The prohibitive cost of the tolls (€1.90 each way) combined with the fall in the number of cars has meant that the majority of people who are travelling to Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), Cork and the south of the country go through the centre of Waterford instead of paying to travel on the 112 metre high bridge.
Traffic figures from the Edmund Rice Bridge have remained stubbornly high. The most recent comparable figures available show that the levels of traffic using the Edmund Rice bridge before and after the opening of the Suir Bridge have decreased by 2,000 vehicles a day, from 40,000 to 38,000. The Department of Transport and the National Roads Authority had claimed that traffic volumes using Rice Bridge would be reduced by 10,000 to 12,000 vehicles per day once the Suir bridge was in operation.
One of the first
The project was one of the first public private partnership (PPP) road projects to be completed in the country. The State shared the cost of constructing the bridge and adjoining roads with a number of private contractors. The Celtic Roads Group (Waterford) Ltd, a consortium made up of Dragados (a Spanish company), NTR, and Royal BAM (Ascon) contributed to the funding of the project in return for the tolling rights on the road for 26 years. The NRA has bet that they can reclaim the money's paid out to the Celtic Roads Group through revenue sharing. During the construction phase of the project the NRA paid Celtic Roads Group €396 million. The NRA also paid CRG a further €62 million for the operation of the roads while CRG have contributed €142 million. A statement on the Waterford City bypass website claims that "the State will recoup monies by means of revenue share, rates and taxes."
A further dispute has broken out between the NRA and the CRG over the tolling by-laws with the NRA claiming that CRG are overcharging motorists by 10 cent a trip. According to the NRA the toll should be €1.80 for a car while CRG are continuing to charge motorists at a rate of €1.90. The NRA has applied to the courts to clarify the laws surrounding the maximum toll charge. The toll charge is linked to the consumer affairs index of the previous year. With the consumer affairs index falling the NRA argue so too should the tolls levied on motorists.