Sunday 8 March 2009

Metro North runs late as transport plans delayed

PUBLIC transport in Dublin and secondary roads around the country will be hit as part of Government cutbacks on capital projects.

The projects likely to be postponed include the Metro North underground line to Dublin Airport, extra buses for Dublin Bus and regional and local roads.

There are also growing doubts about the three decentralised offices planned for Mullingar, Portlaoise and Carlow, which have not yet been given the go-ahead.

The Government is legally obliged to spend €5.9bn of its €8bn capital budget this year because contracts have already been signed for projects such as the major inter-urban motorways. But that leaves the remaining €2.1bn vulnerable to cutbacks.

A Department of Finance spokesman confirmed that this uncommitted capital spending would be reviewed in the run-up to next month's mini-budget. And Health Minister Mary Harney said yesterday that "aspects of the capital programme will have to be readjusted and re-examined".

"We may have to delay some capital projects to ensure we bring stability to the public finances," she said.

According to sources, the €481m capital budget for regional and local roads is likely to be a victim of the cutbacks. Dublin Bus was due to get extra buses to expand its fleet, but this has now been put on hold following a damning consultants report into its operations.

And the Metro North link between Dublin city, Dublin Airport and Swords is also under threat. Although €60m has been set aside for the project, this is dependent on An Bord Pleanala granting an enforceable railway order.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary yesterday launched an attack on the Metro North project, claiming that he and other taxpayers should not have to subside the people of Swords who could "drive to Dublin like anybody else".

Fine Gael finance spokesman Richard Bruton said that cuts in the capital budget were now "unfortunately" unavoidable.

"If we're to find €4.5bn in nine months, the room for manoeuvre is quite tight. Our financial viability as an independent nation is under threat," he said.

Mr Bruton said that every capital project had to be judged on how much it contributed to the economy, and how labour intensive it was. That included the Metro North, which may have to go "back to the drawing board", he said.

"You would have to reckon that a project that was built on the assumption of considerable growth in housing and activity along the corridor would now be looking quite shaky," he said.

It came as builders warned that further cuts in capital spending could lead to 55,000 job losses in the industry. The Construction Industry Federation has called an emergency meeting of its members in Dublin next Monday to respond to the Government's planned cutbacks.

But the Irish Independent has learned that the capital projects which are safe include all the major inter-urban motorway projects such as the Limerick-Nenagh upgrade, the Galway to Ballinasloe motorway and the Dublin to Waterford motorway. Two public-private partnerships, the Limerick to Cork motorway and the Galway to Tuam motorway, have also been approved in recent months.

The Department of Transport confirmed last night that the major rail projects will not be affected by any capital budget cutbacks. These include the construction of two extra rail tracks on the Kildare route, the Ennis to Athenry section of the Western Rail Corridor, the Middleton Rail Line in Cork, and the Dunboyne section of the Navan Rail link.

Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said she would be seeking details of the Government's plans for its €8bn capital budget.

"We want to see what's committed to and what is pencilled in," she said.

The Government has already cut €300m from the capital budget last month in its revised estimates, although it claimed that falling construction prices would allow it to deliver the same for less.

Michael Brennan Political Correspondent
Irish Independent

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