Sunday 21 February 2010

There is a way around planned Slane bypass

The National Roads Authority is bent on pursuing a plan that would visually compromise the setting of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth

THIRTEEN YEARS ago, when I went to Japan for the first time to cover the Kyoto climate change summit, someone who knows the country well told me that it was largely run for the benefit of its concrete industry. “After building all the motorways and high-speed rail lines, they got into concreting river banks and even beaches,” he said.

For the past decade or more, it seems that Ireland has been run for the benefit of CRH plc, Siac, Seán Quinn, the asphalt men and quarry owners and a legion of consultant engineers, archaeologists and greedy farmers. They’ve all done very well from the roll-out of motorways across the length and breadth of the country.

Nobody can say for sure how much all of this has cost, but it is certain that well over €20 billion has been spent so far. Although Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey recently announced that the allocation for national roads this year was being cut by €325 million, the National Roads Authority will still have more than €1 billion to spend.

The authority’s programme is so overblown that when the controversial M3 is finally completed this year, Meath alone (coincidentally, Dempsey’s own constituency) will end up being traversed by four motorways – the M1, the M2, the M3 and the M4. Three of these routes pass remarkably close to each other – only 20km apart in some places.

Any Martian could see that we lost the run of ourselves in building all of these roads fanning out from Dublin.

Instead of “shadowing” the existing routes we inherited, a bit of lateral thinking would surely have led us to build an entirely different motorway network, with (for example) Waterford or Limerick being served on the way to Cork.

If the roads authority carries on unchecked, we will end up with nearly 1,000km of motorways by 2015. And that doesn’t even include an eastern bypass for Dublin – to enclose the city in a “motorway box” – and an outer ring road from Drogheda right around to Naas, which would function in effect as a bypass for the now engorged M50.

The latest bypass proposal is for the village of Slane, Co Meath. Everyone who has attended rock concerts over the years at Slane Castle will be familiar with the old bridge over the river Boyne; it is set at right-angles to the N2, and this hazard is aggravated by the fact that southbound traffic approaches it on a steep incline from the village.

As noted by an environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared for the authority and Meath County Council, “there have been numerous traffic accidents, some fatal, over the years – typically when heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) descend on the steep hill and collide with other traffic or crash through the bridge parapet”. In short, it’s dangerous.

The proposed 3.5km bypass would run east of Slane; opting for a westerly route would have brought it through the estate of the Marquis of Mountcharles. As a result, the EIS concedes, the planned dual-carriageway, with a new bridge over the Boyne, would pass just over 500 metres from the Unesco World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne.

This is at the root of growing opposition to the scheme. Having given a right royal slap in the face to Tara with the M3, despite widespread protests, the authority is now bent on pursuing a plan that would visually compromise the setting of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, the three main prehistoric sites of the Brú na Bóinne archaeological complex.

The EIS identifies five archaeological sites along the route that “will be impacted directly”, as well as a further three “areas of undetermined archaeological potential” and two other sites that “will be impacted indirectly”. In cold technical language, we are told that the predicted impacts range from “slight” or “moderate” to “potentially significant”.

On the other hand, the EIS says, “it should be noted that the N2 Slane bypass would have a positive impact in re-routing heavy traffic from Slane Bridge and Slane Village”. This would bring relief to its residents, who currently endure some 1,600 HGVs trundling through the village on the N2 each day, according to Meath County Council.

That’s why the council adopted a resolution to ban HGVs travelling north-south through Slane on April 6th, 2009.

The ban has not been implemented, ostensibly because of fears that it “could have serious consequences [for the council] in terms of possible legal exposure, delivery delays and business frustration”, an official said.

Could it be that the adoption of such a straightforward solution, forcing truck drivers to use the M1 instead, might have got in the way of a much more expensive and potentially destructive bypass plan? Certainly, many of the objectors will be arguing for the minimalist approach at an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála – if there is one.

The appeals board has a history of rubber-stamping major road schemes. Only one, the proposed 1km “inner relief route” for Athy, Co Kildare, was flatly turned down; it “would fail both as a street and as a relief road because it would continue to bring traffic, including heavy commercial vehicles, through the town centre”, the board said.

The abortive proposal to ban HGVs using the N2 in Slane is surely a valid alternative to the new dual-carriageway planned by the roads authority and its engineering consultants, Roughan O’Donovan.

By refusing permission for this scheme, An Bord Pleanála would be laying down a useful marker against numerous others even now being hatched.

Irish Times

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