Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Will the new NDP be better than the last?

Frank McDonald in The Irish Times tells how the new National Development Plan will be unveiled next week, but the current plan was a disaster, writes Frank McDonald , Environment Editor.
It is no secret that one of the key elements of the current National Development Plan (NDP) - the completion "by 2006" of motorways or dual-carriageways linking Dublin with Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and the Border, north of Dundalk - has not been realised.
It is also no secret that these roads will cost a lot more than the estimate of €5.6 billion given in the NDP when it was launched in November 1999. In fact, this "rough, ballpark, back-of-the-envelope" figure - as Seamus Brennan called it later - was a fiction from the start.
The original figure came from the National Roads Authority (NRA), but it was for something different altogether. As envisaged by its 1998 National Road Needs Study, the existing routes were to be upgraded, some to motorway standard, with bypasses built to relieve towns along the way.
But, less than 12 months later, the Cabinet sub-committee on infrastructure - consisting of Bertie Ahern, Mary Harney, Charlie McCreevy, Noel Dempsey, Mary O'Rourke and John O'Donoghue - decided to go for a motorway programme, and the NRA was told to recast its plans.
Despite this, Charlie McCreevy - then minister for finance - refused to increase the NDP allocation to reflect the likely cost of the Government's more ambitious programme. But even if the figure had been more factual, it would soon have been overtaken by construction inflation.
The cost of building roads doubled within a few years, fuelling spectacular over-runs - 92.4 per cent on the Cavan bypass (€33 million), 98.6 per cent on
the Nenagh bypass (€43 million), 117 per cent on the Drogheda bypass (€244 million), 306 per cent on the Youghal bypass (€44 million), and so on.
As a result, the estimate for completing the NDP roads programme rapidly rose to nearly €16 billion, and the Department of Finance was warned by economic consultants Fitzpatrick & Associates, in their November 2002 mid-term review, that the final bill could be €22 billion or more.
While stricter cost controls and better management have delivered more recent road projects within budget, the real issue is whether the plans currently being pursued make any sense - especially in terms of promoting the oft-repeated but elusive goal of "balanced regional development".
How can this be achieved if all of our major roads converge on Dublin (with the sole exception of the "Atlantic Corridor" mooted in Transport 21, the Government's capital investment framework for transport development)? There, they will feed into the congested M50, which will carry even heavier volumes of traffic after its €1 billion upgrade is completed in 2010.
What other country in Europe would have four motorways - the M1, M2, M3 and proposed Outer Orbital Ring road (an M50 bypass, in effect) - running virtually parallel within a corridor just 30km wide? The answer is none, mainly because planning for motorways is done more rationally elsewhere. The NDP never explicitly stated that the Government had opted for greenfield motorways, running parallel to the old national routes; this only emerged later. But had the Cabinet sub-committee examined a map of Ireland closely, it could have planned a quite different motorway network.
FOR EXAMPLE, AS former IFA president Joe Rea suggested in 2001, both Limerick and Cork could have been served by one motorway routed via north Tipperary running northeastwards to Dublin. Alternatively, a Cork-Dublin motorway could have been routed east to serve Waterford on the way.
Either of these options would have been much cheaper, and would have done more to promote regional development by providing a high-quality route between two of the smaller cities. But nobody who made the fateful decision to go for a radial motorway network ever thought so laterally.
As James Nix and I showed in our book, Chaos at the Crossroads, ministers had no real evidence on which to base this decision. It was grounded on the dubious assumption that the best way to grow regional cities at a faster rate than Dublin is to ensure better access to and from Dublin.
Radial motorways will simply reinforce Ireland's east coast-loaded regional imbalance. In Germany, by contrast, road planners have prevented the development of a "hub and spoke" motorway network because they realise that its centralising effects would be almost impossible to counter.Entirely new greenfield motorways, consuming thousands of acres of farmland, were chosen here because it would have been too controversial to compulsorily
acquire and demolish hundreds of one-off houses strung out along existing national routes, so that they could be widened.
In May 2002, Noel Dempsey warned that up to 1,500 homes would have to be demolished to improve existing national routes along the lines proposed by the NRA's Road Needs Study. "What we're trying to do is to get value for money by long-term planning", he said at the time.
BUT THE GOVERNMENT'S planning for motorways takes no account of wider environmental implications, notably the car-dependent sprawl they would inevitably promote and the rise in road transport's carbon dioxide emissions, which are up by 144 per cent - the highest for any sector.
Just this week, Minister for Transport Martin Cullen announced an allocation of €1.53 billion for NRA projects in 2007, which works out at €4 million-plus per day. The effect of all this spending on roads will lock us into car dependency at a time when global oil production is about to peak.
It is also a myth that the motorways are needed to cater for long-distance traffic. Roads may account for 96 per cent of all passenger traffic in the State, but the overwhelming majority of these trips are relatively short hops, typically for commuting, rather than long journeys from city to city. This was confirmed by a survey carried out by Scetauroute, a French toll consulting company, for the NRA's National Road Needs Study; it found that the number of vehicles travelling the full distance of a national route was low; the highest was just 1,700 per day between Dublin and Cork.
Yet, over the past seven years, massive investment in new roads outstripped public transport by a ratio of four to one. Indeed, some of the rail projects - such as four-tracking the Kildare line to separate commuter and mainline services - were dusted down to reappear in Transport 21.
On the last page of the NDP, an appendix conceded that "some unsustainable patterns of development" could emerge within its framework, as a result of "the pace of current economic development, unforeseen interaction between measures, or [ other] unanticipated consequences".
That's the classic get-out clause by a laissez-faire Government whose greatest single legacy is car-dependent sprawl.

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