Thursday, 31 March 2011

Transport plan a surreal wish list of excess

OPINION: Riddling Dublin with uncosted rail networks is an odd idea taking no account of our means, writes FRANK McDONALD

TEN YEARS ago, the then Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition adopted Platform for Change , an ambitious transport strategy for the greater Dublin area with a price-tag of €22 billion. Most of it was to have been delivered by 2010, including a metro running from Swords to Sandyford via St Stephen’s Green.

The Dublin Transportation Office, which drafted Platform for Change , was being unrealistically optimistic. Indeed, apart from building the Sandyford and Tallaght Luas lines and upgrading Dart and suburban rail services, none of the major public transport projects envisaged in 2001 were delivered.

By contrast, most of the major road schemes in the office’s strategy were implemented in full – the M1, M2, M3, M4, M50 (and its €1 billion upgrade), N7 “improvements”, M7, N9 and N11. All that’s left outstanding are the Eastern Bypass and a new orbital route (call it the M50 bypass) from Drogheda to Newbridge.

“One of the things that has bedevilled transport planning in Dublin is that what was intended as a seamless garment only arrives in patches,” one seasoned observer puts it. Or as Gerry Murphy, chief executive of the National Transport Authority, put it: “There was no engine of delivery for public transport as there was for roads.”

And Murphy knows that well, having been in charge of public-private partnerships for the National Roads Authority prior to taking up his new post. Even throughout the 3½ years when the Green Party was in Government, transport investment was still skewed in favour of roads by a ratio of at least two to one.

Now, the big-ticket public transport schemes are being wheeled out again – this time by the transport authority, which is holding public consultations. Apart from dropping two Luas lines that probably would never have happened anyway, it regurgitates the existing plans – without pricing them.

The absence of even ballpark estimates is quite remarkable. Given Ireland’s financial plight, one might have expected a serious review based on what we can afford. Instead, schemes that would cost billions are put forward simply because they were judged in-house by the transport authority to meet “all” of the strategy’s objectives: “Identified measures were assessed and taken forward where appropriate, based on their technological, political and legal feasibility; the contribution they are likely to make in meeting the objectives of the strategy; and their performance, based on a standard approach to transport appraisal set out by the Department of Transport.”

Thus, it includes not only Metro North, but also Metro West, a city centre link between the two existing Luas lines (with an extension to Grangegorman and Broombridge) and two new Luas lines – one from Lucan to the city centre with a possible extension to Poolbeg, and the other running from the southwest via Kimmage to the city centre.

In addition, the strategy endorses plans to extend the Luas Green Line from Bride’s Glen to Bray, where it would link up with the Dart line, as well as an extension of Metro North southwards from St Stephen’s Green (with tunnelling from St Stephen’s Green to Ranelagh) “enabling its services to run onto the Green Line”.

It also foresees implementation of Dart Underground linking Heuston with Docklands via St Stephen’s Green and completion resignalling and other projects associated with it, including electrification of the Maynooth and Kildare rail lines (so that they could run through the city centre tunnel) and extra track between Balbriggan and Connolly.

Taken together, these rail schemes would cost billions of euro. They are also based on population projections for the greater Dublin area that assume it will increase by 39 per cent between now and 2030. This is unlikely given the number of young people leaving Ireland.

There are numerous other, less costly, measures to promote walking and cycling; restrict traffic speeds in town centre, residential and school areas; and improve bus services – for example, by upgrading existing quality bus corridors. But this is being proposed while Dublin Bus services are contracting as its fleet is cut to save money. Murphy accepts “buses have been taken out of the system” and says “the big challenge is the level of subvention”, which is much lower in Dublin than in most European cities.

As for the enormous investment proposed in its strategy, he insists there’s nothing wrong with taking a long-term view. “We’re looking at a 20-year horizon, so it could be delivered on a phased basis,” he says. Despite constraints on public spending, “we can do an awful lot over the next three to four years”.

Following public consultation which concludes on May 6th, the authority (where 40 per cent of the 95 staff are drawn from the old Dublin Transportation Office) will finalise a six-year “implementation plan” within nine months. Indeed, a draft – unseen by the public – has been submitted to the department.

This is the biggest transport wish list to be put forward for Dublin since the transportation office had a go 10 years ago. In the best of times, it would be vaultingly ambitious and probably not achievable. In the worst of times, with Ireland burdened by €100 billion of debts, it seems quite surreal.

Irish Times

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