Monday 3 September 2007

Plans stuck in a tunnel

The grossly under-used Dublin Port Tunnel is typical of our entire infrastructure fiasco.

Driving through an eerily empty Port Tunnel the other day, I began to ask myself, why did we build it? It is practically empty all the time.

This is the biggest infrastructural project the State has ever undertaken. It has a capacity of 55,000 cars per day, but recent figures suggest that only 12,000 a week - not a day - are using it.

This means that the Port Tunnel is working at 2 per cent capacity. Granted it gets the trucks out of the city, but at nearly three quarter of a billion euro, you’d expect a bit more.

Obviously the pricing is all wrong. There must be a price at which the trucks are happy and the drivers of Dublin can use a tunnel that their taxes paid for. As things stand, we have a piece of engineering which no one uses.

So we pay through the nose for a huge piece of infrastructure that the state prices out of the market. The expression ‘‘build it and they will come’’ is familiar enough, but ‘‘build it and turn ’em away’’ is a new one to me.

Yet the Port Tunnel fiasco simply highlights the entire road building mess in our country. If you are interested in savouring the rivalry ahead of the All Ireland football final, a trip to the Cork/Kerry border is well worth it.

You will also notice how much better the roads are in south Kerry than West Cork. You move from old asphalt to new tar. If you don’t believe me, drive from Kenmare to Castletownbere. The road in Kerry is flat and smooth. As soon as you cross the county line, the same road changes surface.

The reason for this is simple Strokeonomics. It is economics Irish style, when the local government and the local politicians join forces to build infrastructure based on electoral boundaries rather than engineering logic. What other country has roads determined by county boundaries?

The all-Ireland approach to economics prevails. In the all-Ireland economics, the county boundary is sacrosanct. What generates great sport generates bad economics, as it cultivates a parochial partisanship that is necessary for the Stroke.

Strokeonomics enfeebles all of us because the tax money of the central government is used to prop up the ambitions of the little emperors who masquerade as politicians in Ireland.

How hard is it to build a proper road? In other countries, Portugal being a good example, the road network has been upgraded substantially in the past ten years. But that would be too simple.

Here, with the exception of the Dublin-to-Belfast route which is the infrastructural equivalent of Ireland’s Call - constructed to be nice to Protestants - everything is a shambles. So much so that Irish people still, despite being the second wealthiest race in the world on paper, marvel at a dual carriageway that would be standard in Mexico.

We talk about the ‘‘great stretch of road’’. What exactly does this expression tell you about our expectations? This brings us to the National Development Plan or, as it’s known in some quarters, Transport 2021.Only a recovering socialist could have come up with the title Transport 2021. It has all the ceremony of a superannuated five year plan.

The beauty is, like all good socialist targets - apart from the gulag - it’s sufficiently far ahead into the future that the present lot will not be around to answer for it. The term ‘transport’ is so ludicrously vague as to be meaningless. But it sounds good.

Most of us think that Ireland has changed. Gombeen Ireland can’t exist still, surely? Take a deep breath. Are you sitting comfortably because, in the past few years the ESRI published two comprehensive reports on how much we are spending, where and why (ESRI Policy Research Papers No 50 and 59

Up until then, nobody knew what was going on. The government’s spin-doctors did their best to quash this report and on reading it, I’m not surprised they didn’t try to burn it.

A picture of total chaos emerges, where there is hardly any overall strategy. No one knows why things are being built and there is absolutely no framework. Roads are planned, like a proposed motorway to Waterford, based on evidence that traffic is not once, or three times, but ten times below the capacity necessary to justify such spending. But then again the minister was from Waterford and he had to deliver.

But it gets worse, because the report reveals that no single road project that has been proposed by local councils and local politicians has been turned down in six years.

How can you pretend to have an assessment board if it doesn’t assess anything? Like the Port Tunnel, no one is assessing value for money. It is calamitous.

The ERSI found that Ireland suffered ‘‘abnormal delays’’ on all public infrastructure projects. That much we knew, but much more worrying is the fact that there is no overall model anywhere that links up all the bits of infrastructure. Roads are sanctioned by the local vested interests and that’s it.

But it gets worse. There is no systematic plan for public transport either. The ESRI study says clearly that one knows what to prioritise. The Strokeonomics approach is ‘‘we have the money, let’s just spend the stuff before it runs out’’. It’s a ‘‘jobs for the boys’’ bonanza and the idea is to grab what’s going.

According to the ESRI, all the ‘‘studies (for transport) have been prepared by different authors, for different organisations using different assumptions’’. There is ‘‘no framework for analysis’’ and when referring to the Metro, new Luas and Dublin Bus plans for the future, the state ‘‘does not appear to have analysed how the different elements of the transport network they are considering would interact with each other’’.

Ask yourself the question, cui bono - who benefits? Let’s leave it at one last figure, before we get too depressed. In the period of this government from 1996 to 2006, inflation rose by 30 per cent, but the price of road construction went up by 70 per cent. The 40 per cent difference was stroked away, trousered by insiders and paid for by you, the eejit. On the outside - the taxpayer.

Even when it’s totally obvious that Strokeonomics is ripping us off, the insiders just put their heads down brazenly, lying and pretending to forget. We carry on as if it was the most normal thing in the world - or worse still, concluding there is nothing that can be done.

David McWilliams’s new book, The Generation Game, is published this month.

Sunday Business Post

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