THE TAXPAYER may be forced to pay for a considerable portion of the costs of the Limerick Tunnel, as traffic figures remain below initial projections.
The National Roads Authority had agreed a deal with Direct Route, the Limerick company involved in the construction, operation and maintaining of the tolled tunnel.
Cash penalties will be paid to the company by the NRA if traffic volumes fall below certain levels.
Traffic figures at the Limerick Tunnel are currently 3,000 below the agreed threshold needed to avoid penalty payments.
According to the local environmental organisations, the bill to taxpayers will be at least €100m over the lifetime of the contracts.
But it will be far higher if traffic levels remain static or continue to fall in coming years.
Councillors in the city expressed disappointment this week that only 14,000 vehicles are using the Tunnel per day, which amounts to just 35 per cent of its 40,000 capacity.
By contrast, the Southern Ring Road has a traffic flow of up to 40,000 vehicles per day.
However, both council officials and the manager of Direct Route said the economic downturn and the loss of multi-national companies in the Mid-West region are to blame for the low Tunnel figures.
Tom King, manager of Direct Route, said the loss of Dell’s manufacturing plant in Limerick, as well as a fall in traffic through Shannon Airport have been contributing factors.
“I don’t think it’s peculiar just to Limerick,” he told the Limerick Leader, “we’ve seen a national reduction in traffic numbers, so the models developed back in 2005 would have predicted that our GDP and GNP would have been 30 per cent higher than it is today. There’s almost a linear correlation between GNP, GDP and traffic figures.
“Then you can take in national and global factors and how that has affected us here, with people emigrating, and the closure of the Dell plant.
“There was almost an instant impact on the traffic in the city when they shut down, because not only do you have the employees commuting to and from the plant, but you also have the suppliers,” he said.
“And on top of all that, regrettably Limerick appears to be an employment blackspot,” he added.
When the Tunnel was opened last year, the then Taoiseach Brian Cowen said he expected it drive investment in Limerick and the Mid West region when the economy starts to recover.
The scheme comprises 10km of dual carriageway, 11 bridges, five underpasses, two toll plazas and its own traffic management system.