Sinn Féin has claimed that the Government has been "bounced" into delaying hikes to road tolls, after Cabinet agreed to defer the planned rise in tolls on motorways for six months until 1 July.

It follows controversy over an increase of at least 10c, which was due to take effect in January.

It is understood deferring the increase will cost in the region of €12.5m, which is being absorbed by the State.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris told RTÉ's News at One, that it is "right and proper" that the funds will be provided by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

"The three party leaders in Government were very eager to solve this in a way that helped commuters, helped hauliers, but also didn't take money away from public transport budgets and I think the decision we have arrived at today is a sensible and balanced one," he said.

The planned increase would have meant a 10c hike on most tolls, 20c on the M50 and 30c on the M50 for motorists without tags.

The issue provoked significant political opposition as it was due to come into effect during the cost-of-living crisis.

Sinn Féin's transport spokesperson Darren O'Rourke has tabled a motion to scrap the planned price hikes.

"The Government needs to recognise we are living in a cost-of-living crisis, and workers and businesses are struggling with transport costs," he said.

Mr O'Rourke said Government has made an "eleventh hour intervention to defer charges", and that it is "as clear as day they were bounced into this" by political and public pressure.

The hikes are a "crazy proposal", he said, and delaying them serves only to "kick the can down the road" and "fails to provide the certainty required" by families.

The Public-Private Partnerships used on roads "are a relic of the Fianna Fáil cowboy era of poor planning", he said.

Minister of State at the Department of Transport Hildegarde Naughten,responded that the Government will not be opposing the Sinn Féin motion as its objective "is in line" with Government concerns, but she took issue with some of the points which had been raised.

Toll revenue is used for motorway maintenance, and not for building new roads, she said.

Of the ten toll roads on the national road network, she noted that eight are operated by Public Private Partnerships, while the M50 and Dublin Tunnel are operated directly on behalf of Transport Infrastructure Ireland.

Haulage sector facing costs of up to €8m

President of the Irish Road Haulage Association Eugene Drennan said that the decision to defer the planned increase in tolls is "very welcome news".

Mr Drennan said that had the increase gone ahead it would have cost the haulage sector up to €8m.

Speaking to RTÉ's News at One, he said: "We welcome it very much so, because the figures for us were a good bit higher than 10 cent, and the cumulative added-up figure is very significant to the supply chain of Ireland.

"Within the contract for the toll roads there is also a discount mechanism for volume users, which they've never given us and never allowed so we will be seeking a meeting with TII to trash that out,

"But for today it's very welcome news and that the Government had a refresh and looked at it wisely."

Department 'instructed to engage with TII'

Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) said that the Department of Transport have been instructed to engage with them "to explore the possibility of deferring" the introduction of increases to toll charges.

Peter Walsh, CEO of TII, told the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications that if he reads his opening statement, which was prepared before the Government's announcement, the committee may appreciate "the level of uncertainty that there is around it still".

"Events, dear boy, I suppose might have updated your opening statement," Committee Chair Kieran O'Donnell said, as he invited Mr Walsh to deliver his statement.

He then noted that Mr Walsh indicated that the deferral was "conditional".

Mr O'Donnell said that the public have the impression that the deferral is definite.

Mr Walsh said that "TII does not have the right to prevent the PPP company from raising the toll charges" as long as they obey bye-laws.

Toll revenue is used to repay loans held by the 8 PPPs; the outstanding debt as of 31 December 2021 is €731m approx.

They employ 250 people.

TII does not have the right to unilaterally change the operation of tolls or increases, and any change "would have to be the subject of negotiation".

TII's experience is that PPP's would not enter into detailed discussion without getting legal advice "which their lenders would likely insist on".

Cathal Masterson, Director of Commercial Operations at TII read a statement sent by the Department of Transport to the agency.

It said that following a meeting of Government leaders last night, "the Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has directed that officials in the Department of Transport engage with TII to develop options that might allow for the suspension of the planned toll inceases until the end of June".

Mr Walsh said he met with Government officials this morning to discuss this.

Asked if €12.5m is an accurate figure, Mr Walsh said the number was mentioned, but "the cost of the deferral is yet to be determined".

"We don't want to give the impression that we can get this over the line for a specific number," he said, because there are administration and legal costs, among other things.

"We can't impose this," he said.

Mr Walsh said "if any one of them disagree, they are entitled to levy the increases" in January,

Mr Masterson said all eight PPPs have agreed to enter discussions, with a view to finalising this quickly, but they will need to get approvals from boards and possibly lenders, so "that could be a hurdle".

The boards could meet by the "15th or 16th of December", he added.

But lenders can take time to approve, Mr Masterson said.

Additional reporting Mícheál Lehane