NTA bus lane camera proposal: caught in traffic
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
TLDR version: We were all under the impression that Shane Ross rejected the idea of the NTA enforcing bus lanes using cameras but these documents reveal that it wasn't true, that most of the discussion on the issue happened after it was 'rejected' and that it's an ongoing discussion between the NTA and the Department of Transport.
In late October last year, we sent in a parliamentary question to Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, through Róisín Shortall TD. We asked the Minister what he is doing in relation to the request from the National Transport Authority (NTA) to be given the power to enforce bus lanes. In his reply, Minister Ross acknowledged the request from the NTA, explained that An Garda Síochána currently has this power and that there are no plans to give these powers to the NTA. There was some media coverage about it at the time, we were all up in arms but there was very little we could do. Case closed, right?
Well, as it turns out, not really. Recently, we were reliably informed that the proposal was never rejected, that the answer from Shane Ross was not correct and that it was a result of miscommunication within Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (DTTaS). Documents received though freedom of information corroborates this version of events. They reveal a series of miscommunications within the Department in relation to the NTA proposal to enforce bus lanes and that the NTA and DTTaS are now in the process of discussing the legislative amendments required.
The saga began in April 2018 — before the Core Bus Corridors and Network Redesign consultations even began — when the Deputy CEO of the NTA sent a letter to the head of the Public Transport Investment Division at DTTaS. The letter was shared with the heads of the Public Transport Corporate and Services Division and the Public Transport Regulation Division. In this letter, the NTA highlighted the planned investment into bus infrastructure and the need to protect that investment through enforcement. He recalled the monitoring of illegal usage done at College Green during the construction of Luas Cross City, An Garda Síochána's lack of resources and the costs incurred by paying for Garda services. The NTA pointed out that international best practice is to use a camera based enforcement system and that, in the UK, it's often the civil authorities that are responsible. The letter went on to suggest that the NTA would be well-placed to assume such a role in Ireland but conceded that Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) and local authorities may also be suitable.
Then it doesn't seem like anything happened for a while. There may have been discussions but nothing on the record. In November 2018 — around the same time as the first Core Bus Corridors consultation — it was brought up at an NTA Monitoring Committee Meeting. These are monthly meetings between NTA executives and civil servants at DTTaS. In this meeting, the NTA advised DTTaS that "stringent enforcement measures regarding prohibition of parking on bus lanes will be required in order to maximise the benefits of BusConnects on Core Bus Corridors" and that it's their position that it would require legislative amendments.
Again, nothing happened on record for a while. Any e-mails from the public about bus lane cameras were given the usual answer of the Gardaí already having this power under section 81 of the Road Traffic Act 2010. Then, in late October 2019, we asked Róisín Shortall to put in the parliamentary question that caused all the fuss. The question went to the Road Safety Division who were not aware of any requests from the NTA. They consulted with someone from the Public Transport Corporate and Services Division who said they asked around the different public transport divisions and nobody was aware of it. The original e-mail sent from the NTA in April 2018 was shared with the heads of all three public transport divisions and all three were present at the November 2018 NTA Monitoring Committee Meeting when the NTA raised the issue. The proposal was still in very early stages so it's understandable that it wasn't common knowledge in the Department but somebody should have known.
The weird thing is, when the Minister sent the final response, he specifically acknowledged the request from the NTA. If there was an e-mail sent to the NTA asking about it, it would have been given to us. The same day the answer was given, there was some discussion around the Gardaí already having this power and Robert Troy's private members bill already being covered under existing legislation. Did the Department simply not understand the NTA proposal? It's a bit unclear how it went from nobody knowing about the request from the NTA to the Minister specifically acknowledging the request and rejecting it. He doubled down when asked about it at a Dublin Bus event two days later saying "We will do anything which we think is effective in policing the corridors and the roads to protect lives. At the moment those who have to enforce it are the gardaí and we think they are the appropriate body to do so". So not "anything" then. I was standing beside him and I was gobsmacked and just fed up with it all.
The media coverage reached DTTaS on Monday morning. The Road Safety Division had no knowledge of the request and it's not clear who was dealing with it in the public transport divisions.
On Thursday 14 November, the Public Transport Corporate and Services Division says they have no formal proposal from the NTA while gathering information to reply to an e-mail about bus lanes sent to Minister Ross from a member of the public.
When the Minister finally responded on 29 November, the answer to the first question was exactly the same as the highlighted text in the internal e-mail above. The answer to second question about camera enforcement of bus lanes was the same as his parliamentary answer. He once again acknowledged the request from the NTA and rejected it. Again, it's not clear who wrote that answer.
At this stage, it looks like the NTA hadn't raised the issue in 11 months but we were told that they were spooked by the parliamentary answer and the press coverage the week before. The topic was raised again at the NTA Monitoring Committee on Tuesday 12 November, two days prior to those internal e-mails above. The minutes say "The NTA advised the Group that there is an issue with Bus Lane Enforcement (Camera) which is a key requirement of the Core Bus Corridor element of the BusConnects Programme. If the law is not amended, it will have major implications for the project. DTTaS will discuss the issue/options." It was also listed as an action for DTTaS to look into.
So it wasn't rejected by the Department when the parliamentary question was put in. If it was already rejected, it's unlikely that it would show up as an action for DTTaS from the NTA Monitoring Committee Meeting for the first time. It wasn't an action from the last meeting the NTA brought it up at. Maybe it was just forgotten about for a long time. It wasn't rejected between this meeting and when Shane Ross replied to that e-mail on 29 November either because it's in the December NTA Monitoring Committee Meeting too. It was listed as an ongoing action for DTTaS.
A week later, the Deputy CEO of the NTA wrote to the Assistant Secretary in charge of the Sustainable Mobility Division (which all the public transport divisions are under). The only person ranked higher than an Assistant Secretary is the Secretary General of DTTaS himself. This letter contained details about several legislative amendments requested by the NTA including the need for legislation to allow civil camera enforcement of certain road traffic laws.
The letter was passed down to the head of the Public Transport Regulation Division again (different person to when the original 2018 letter was sent). Another letter was sent from the NTA to the head of the Public Transport Regulation Division in April 2020 referencing "our recent discussions" and detailing legislative amendments requested by the NTA. Camera based enforcement was mentioned again as a "priority level one" amendment request. In addition to the previous letter, it was stated that "It may not be necessary that the full legislation related to such enhanced camera enforcement is put in place prior to the submission of BusConnects planning applications, but a clear policy commitment to bring forward enhanced camera based enforcement would be essential."
So what does it all mean? Well, the prospect of widening camera based enforcement powers is certainly not dead like we thought it was back in November. The reply from Shane Ross stating "There are no plans at present to confer such an enforcement role on the NTA." was not true and most people in the Department weren't even aware of the proposal. There has been plenty of discussion about it since. In fact, most of the discussion took place after it was 'rejected' by the Minister. It also makes one thing clear: An Garda Síochána currently has the power to enforce bus lanes and other traffic offences using cameras. The fact that they have made no attempts to do so is all the more reason to extend these powers to civil authorities.
What we need now is a Minister for Transport that will actually bring this through the Oireachtas and we need parties to get behind it when they do. So we call on the next government to deliver this essential change in legislation to allow our bus and cycling infrastructure to function efficiently.
We have a few related FOI requests pending so we might have more good news in the coming weeks!
All the documents can be viewed here.