Dublin City Council transport chief Brendan O’Brien told members of the council’s transport and finance committees last week that he wasn’t in favour of introducing congestion charges for people driving into the city – at least not yet.
“From the point of view of Dublin city, and I suppose from the traffic department’s point of view, we don’t consider at the moment that congestion charging is a suitable tool in Dublin,” O’Brien said at a meeting of the council’s transport committee.
Members of the council’s finance committee had requested a discussion with the members of the transport committee on congestion charges. So that was on the agenda on Wednesday 8 November at City Hall.
“Obviously we’d need legislation,” said Sinn Féin Councillor Séamas McGrattan, the transport committee chair, “but it’s just to discuss how we’d move it forward or if there’s a will to move it forward”.
There was very little enthusiasm for the discussion, much less the idea of bringing in congestion charging in Dublin city.
“We would be totally opposed to any proposal for congestion charging at the moment. I don’t think it’s appropriate, I don’t think it should even be considered,” said Keith Gavin of the Irish Parking Association, who sits on the transport committee.
There’s no concrete proposal to discuss, said Green Party Councillor Janet Horner. “I think it’s a difficult discussion to have at the moment because we’re just basing it on our own instinctual ideas.”
Councillors would be better served spending their time talking about efforts now actually underway to tackle congestion in the city, such as the new city centre traffic plan to route drivers not going to the city centre around it, plus increasing parking charges, and putting in new cycling and walking infrastructure, Horner said.
Until the public transport system is upgraded – through BusConnects, a planned Luas extension, and the proposed Metrolink – to provide alternatives for people who want to come into the city without driving, it’s premature to discuss a congestion charge, several committee members said.
“Until all these things come to fruition and we actually see a viable transport system working in our city … I think it’s very premature,” said Fianna Fáil Councillor Keith Connolly.
Some of those present, however, said that since there was a discussion going on in the national government and in the media, the council should examine the issue and take a position on it.
“What position should the council be taking in trying to influence discussions that are happening elsewhere on this?” asked Aidan Sweeney, of the business group Ibec, who sits on the finance committee.
Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey said similar: “I don’t think it matters whether we think the issue should be discussed or not. The issue is being discussed.”
Bringing in congestion charging in the short-term would be difficult and expensive, but in future it might be easier, said O’Brien, the council’s transport head.
There are about 42 ways into the city centre across the canals, O’Brien said. The council would have to install equipment at each of them to record cars, he said, and the system would need a large “back office” system as well to manage it.
To install a congestion-charging system at the moment, “we’re going to have to build up really large chunks of equipment on protected structures all over Dublin and I’m not sure anybody really wants us to do that”, O’Brien said.
“I think in the future and as we see whether it’s with onboard units or it’s as cars become much more sophisticated and start talking directly to the city council’s traffic systems then you actually have some means of actually doing this in a much more considered way,” he said.
In addition, the council lacks the legal authority to impose congestion charging, O’Brien said.
At the moment, Dublin City Council has a system for charging for licenses for heavy-goods vehicles (HGVs) that come into the city, which is a similar mechanism.
But extending that to non-commercial vehicles would require permission from the Department of Transport, O’Brien said. “So as it stands we really don’t have a mechanism first of all that we can do it.”
Then there’s the question of whether congestion charging is really the best tool to accomplish the council’s goals for traffic in the city, O’Brien said.
“Personally I think a low-emissions zone in the centre of the city, removing some of the more polluting vehicles, would be the way to go,” O’Brien said. Like the one in London, for example, he said.
One model of a congestion charge would be a fee imposed on drivers coming into the city during peak times, to reduce congestion.
In contrast, a low-emissions zone might impose a cost on certain types of vehicles entering it at any time of day or night.
“But the second thing is should there not just be a pay-by-the-mile version for the greater Dublin area? Why do we want to do it just in the city centre?” O’Brien said.
A system like that might impose a charge per mile or kilometre a person drives, to disincentivise them from driving, and push them towards public transport, or cycling, or walking.
“I personally think the policy of Dublin City Council should be that it should be addressed as a regional not just as a city-centre one,” O’Brien said.