Transport Minister of State “fact checks” Senator on cycling funding, but who’s right?

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Minister of State for Hildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael) tonight has taken to Twitter tonight to fact-check Senator Marie Sherlock (Labour), but who is correct?

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Naughton is what the media has nicknamed a “Super Junior Minister’. This is a junior minister, or officially, a Minister of State, who sits at Cabinet. An Irish solution to the constitutional maximum of fifteen ministers. So, it’s all the more noteworthy she’s fact-checking a Senator on the issue of cycling funding.

At 8.13pm, Senator Sherlock tweeted: “Last week, we saw nothing for cycling in Budget 2023. We need: Cycle to School scheme, supports for cargo bikes, a France-style trading scheme for old cars in exchange for bikes, [and a] radical expansion of the Dublin Bikes network.”

About an hour later, Minister for State Naughton replied: “Fact Check – false. This year we will spend almost €1m every day on walking and cycling projects including the continued funding of the Safe Routes to School programme currently being rolled out nationwide!”

The Minister is right that almost €1m every day on walking and cycling projects, this is true.

But it’s reasonably clear that the Senator is talking about new supports and supports needed for cycling other than infrastructure. It has baffled many observers why the Government hasn’t supported electric and cargo bikes the way it supports electric cars with grants or offers some kind of alternative such as zero interest loans.

As reported last week: The programme for Government promises wider incentives for bicycles, and the move to provide such in some form or another was supported by Ibec, a social justice charity, a number of Government and opposition politicians, at least some Department of Transport officials, active transport and climate experts, and cycling campaign groups.

Another point is why not just expand the electric vehicle grant to bicycles? As Galway TD Ciaran Cannon asked over the weekend: “Logic, it’s a wonderful thing. If your electric bike is the thing that gets you to the office, gets your tools on site, your delivery made, or your kids to school, then why wouldn’t it be counted as a fully legitimate electric vehicle?”

We understand that those who opposed the Green’s push for bicycle incentives included their coalition partners — it’s not clear if it was just one or both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who were behind this — and officials at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER).

Now, this is an interesting point, DPER were said to be opposed to the funding of incentives such as grants for bicycles because it was an ongoing spending commitment rather than capital spending, for infrastructure.

But the (nearly) €1m a day on walking and cycling is a Programme of Government commitment, spending on grants or other supports should be from additional funding. If it’s not and something like grants are expected to be funded from that €1m a day fund, then the claim that such an amount is being spent on ‘walking and cycling projects’ is more flawed than the idea that Budget 2023 includes nothing for cycling, when it was implied it was nothing new.

What is clear is that there will be continued justified criticism of both Minister of State for Hildegarde Naughton and also Transport Minister Eamon Ryan until they can come up with some way of making access to more expensive electric and cargo bikes more affordable to more people.

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