THE Government is to go ahead with studies to test whether Luas trams could be rolled out in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.
The Transport Department is prepared to build Luas light rail systems in these regional cities if studies it has ordered conclude that this is feasible.
Transport Minister Noel Dempsey revealed yesterday that the feasibility studies would determine if either Luas or rapid bus services could be introduced to cater for expanding commuter belts around cities.
Mr Dempsey disclosed the Luas plan yesterday when he expanded on plans to spend a record €3.8bn on transport next year.
He defended the Government's continued bias in favour of roads rather than public transport.
Funding of more than €2bn was announced for roads in yesterday's budget, compared to €1.3bn for public transport. Dealing with ongoing criticism of the failure to tackle roads such as the N11 near Arklow where there has been a succession of fatal crashes, Mr Dempsey said the immediate priority was to finish off the network of inter-urban roads between Dublin and the other cities.
However, he stressed that the N11 would be tackled and that the National Roads Authority was already advancing this and other projects as part of the next list of priorities.
Mr Dempsey disclosed that the long-promised Dublin Transport Authority had been delayed because he was not happy with some elements of the draft legislation.
He wanted greater linkages between the provision of transport and planning and development.
This link would be drawn up by the new authority and each local authority in the Dublin area would have to take account of this in their development plans and in planning decisions, added Mr Dempsey.
Asked about the controversial decision by the NRA to scrap its plans to build a network of rest areas along dual-carriageways and motorways, the minister said that unsupervised areas could be a magnet for anti-social behaviour.
The NRA was instead proceeding with its plans for full service areas every 60km along the roads network.
Mr Dempsey said the public transport allocation would be used to fund extensions to Dublin's Luas light railway; for planning and design work on Dublin's proposed Metro systems and Navan rail line; and for work on the Kildare route project, the Western Rail Corridor and the Cork-Midleton rail line.
Outlining his spending plans Mr Dempsey said €2.3bn would be used to to improve the major inter-urban routes.
He dismissed suggestions that local authorities would have less to spend on the non-national roads in their areas because of reduced revenue. He said car tax income had increased and there would be no reduction.
Six more national roads schemes will begin in 2008.
Mr Dempsey reiterated his pledge to cut driving-test waiting lists to 10 weeks by next June, paving the way for the introduction of key provisional licence reforms.
Treacy Hogan Environment Correspondent