THE Government has signalled that the Metro North light rail system to Dublin Airport may be scrapped -- despite being given the green-light by planners yesterday.
In a clear indication that the €2.5bn project was under threat, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan said the money might not be available to build the line.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen also refused to say if the project -- which would create up to 4,000 jobs -- would go ahead.
An Bord Pleanala yesterday granted planning permission for the 15km light-rail project which will link St Stephen's Green with Swords.
The Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) has already spent €130m and plans to spend another €85m next year on pre-construction works. But it cannot go ahead until the Government signs off on the project.
Transport Minister Noel Dempsey yesterday said a formal decision would be made at the end of next year.
Mr Cowen also refused to commit to the project.
"Obviously discussions on the capital programmes are still ongoing and, so, you know, I can't speak for the Government until the Government make decisions on these matters," he said in Brussels.
Ms Coughlan was also pointedly vague. "This is only a board decision. The issue of whether there will be the financial wherewithal to provide Metro North is still a matter of consideration by the Government," she said.
The comments appear to flag a major U-turn as they come just three months after Mr Cowen insisted the project would go ahead.
At a high-profile launch of the Government's capital spending programme in July, he said the money was available and it would proceed.
The Dublin Chamber of Commerce last night warned if the project was scrapped or delayed it would cause serious "reputational" damage for the State, particularly when other major infrastructure projects were planned in the coming years.
"There is a reputational damage if major capital projects like Metro North are delayed or don't go ahead," a spokesman said. "It's not to be under-estimated. People have spent €5m-€10m apiece getting their tenders ready.
"If the project doesn't go ahead at all, from an international point of view there will be a problem for Ireland in attracting overseas expertise to build large projects."
Metro North will be capable of carrying 20,000 passengers an hour with 10km of the system underground.
The journey time from Dublin Airport to the city centre is estimated to be around 20 minutes.
An Bord Pleanala yesterday gave permission for a scaled-down version of the line, cutting three stops, a park-and-ride facility and rail depot from the project.
The line has been reduced from 18km to 15.7km.
In a decision contained in a 1,700 page report, the board approved the scheme from the Estuary stop north of Swords to St Stephen's Green.
It includes an underground link from the city centre to Ballymun where it will cross the M50 on a flyover bridge.
But the depot, stop and park- and-ride facility at Belinstown have been refused permission along with stops at Lissenhall and Seatown.
An Bord Pleanala said as the depot was at the end of the line, it was "more likely to result in inefficient empty running of metro vehicles and extended travel for staff".
An alternative site for the depot at Dardistown, south of Dublin Airport, should be considered, it said.
Building will proceed once the Government approves a cost-benefit analysis of the project. This is not expected before the end of next year, and after the two groups bidding to build the line submit their best and final offers.
The RPA welcomed the decision, saying it provided "sufficient clarity" for the project to proceed.