DUBLIN'S €3.7bn Metro North rail system is going ahead -- but Transport Minister Noel Dempsey can't say when.
Mr Dempsey yesterday qualified his backing for the huge project saying the system would only be built if it came though a stringent cost-benefit analysis next year.
The minister also raised the spectre of lengthy delays, saying the Transport 21 plan would "be an even better idea in three or four years when we move out of recession".
He admitted money was not there for other transport schemes included in the National Development Plan (NDP). Some projects could now face postponement or the chop.
"The procedure is, and always was, that once the tenders are there, there would be negotiations and the final price would be decided at that stage," he said. "It will get its usual appraisal, value for money, cost benefit analysis and if it meets those, it will go ahead.
"That's the way it was, that's the way it is, and that's the way it will be."
The minister was speaking at the launch of airline CityJet's new €6m hangar at Dublin airport, a project he said underlined the need to plan for the future.
But he appeared to hedge his backing of Dublin's future transport needs, as speculation continues that Metro North from St Stephen's Green to Swords could fall victim to the State's collapsing finances.
In August, before the full extent of the credit crisis became apparent, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan met with the Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) -- which is overseeing the project -- to say Metro North would go ahead.
Informed sources said the Government wanted to send out the message that the project would go ahead so the four bidders would submit the best price.
Yesterday, bidders said that as far as they were aware, the project was still going ahead. But Mr Dempsey said other projects could be scaled back, or indefinitely postponed.
"We haven't as much money as we expected. We prefaced everything in our programme for Government on a 4.5pc increase in income," he said.
"We obviously haven't that, we are going to be in deficit next year and that will affect our spending plans.
"The NDP and Transport 21 was a good idea when it was put in place. It's still a good idea and it will be an even better idea in three or four years' time when we move out of recession.
"We may have to delay some projects, we may have to postpone some of them but we're not talking at this stage of abandoning any projects, giving up on any of the projects.
"I intend, in the NDP, to continue planning and providing money for various projects in Transport 21, but start-up dates in some cases may be deferred."
The RPA, which has already spent €33m planning the project, has sought planning permission for the line and the successful bidder is not expected to be announced before next month. After that, they will negotiate with the RPA over the final price and this process could run into next year.
Any delay could have serious effects for those investing along the Metro route -- critics say a postponement would send a signal that Ireland is not investing in infrastructure.
Mr Dempsey said the tendering process would be completed on February 6 next.
"When the tenders are finalised, there will be the usual capital appraisal and subject to that, yes, it is a project that is going to go ahead and one the Government is very much committed to," he added.
Ciaran Byrne and Paul Melia