Following years of budgetary contraction and reduced capital investment in infrastructure, there is now a return to consideration of what capital investment is required and what should be prioritised. The last Government published its plan for capital investment Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021 in September 2015. It seems possible that a new Government may revisit some priorities.
The Exchequer capital allocations for the period are €27 billion, of which Transport accounts for 29%. €6 billion is allocated for national, regional and local roads and €3.6 billion is for public transport. While the roads budget appears significant, most of this is for maintenance of the existing network, with just €1.6 billion allocated for new projects. The WDC has posted recently on the importance of maintaining local and regional roads especially in rural areas, see here.
The COP21 Agreement in Paris last December has renewed attention on the need to reduce greenhouse emissions and the development of sustainable transport projects. The recent European Commission country report for Ireland highlighted congestion in Dublin as an issue and this is suggested as an issue for consideration by the incoming government, for example see blog post . The WDC supports more sustainable transport and has highlighted potential for emissions reductions through use of more rail freight, read more here (245kb). However this should not mean that road priorities should be relegated, especially where the road network remains relatively weak.
At a recent Infrastructure Summit a presentation by Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) highlighted some of these issues. The map below illustrates Ireland’s current road network, noting the motorway, primary and secondary routes.
The map shows how the motorway network extends across the southern half of the country and the Dublin-Belfast corridor. The development of the motorway network is of great benefit to those regions and centres they serve. However by default those areas without such road improvements have reduced accessibility relative to other parts of the country.
The capital plan includes funding for one motorway project underway in the Western Region, from Gort to Tuam – part of the Atlantic Road Corridor. This is very welcome, however once complete in 2018, the relative weakness of the road network north of Tuam will be even more apparent.
This is not to argue that there is a need for motorway infrastructure to all parts of the country but there does need to be investment to improve journey times to relatively inaccessible urban centres for example to Ballina, Sligo and Letterkenny. A 2012 study by the NRA on the impact of national road investment 2006-2010 on the effective density of urban areas including their accessibility to employment’ found that Sligo, Ballina/Castlebar and Letterkenny among others had no or very small improvement.
There are plans for improvements on the N4 (Collooney to Castlebaldwin) and the N5 Westport to Turlough as well as improvements to the N56 in Donegal all of which are welcome and will improve accessibility to Sligo and Castlebar respectively and should be progressed asap.
According to the TII other sections of the Atlantic Road Corridor, to the north of Tuam, (for example N17 Tubbercurry ByPass and Collooney to Tubbercurry) have been suspended and it is not clear if there are any timelines for reinstatement and funding of these projects.
Regional priorities not modal!
A by-product of the improved motorway network has been the relative dis-improvement in journey times on main-line rail services and reduced patronage on some services. As investment in transport is often considered on a mode specific basis, the cumulative effect on specific geographic routes and regions is often not considered. So proposed investment in rail is now focused on those routes with better road access (motorways), in order to stay competitive. Therefore the cumulative effect of little funding for improvements in both road and rail on some routes, for example to the North West, is not considered from a broader, transport accessibility point of view.
Western Region Needs
In terms of transport most of the Western Region and rural Ireland travels by road. As the WDC noted in its submission (300 KB) to the Department of Transport, over 40% of the population (68% in the WDC region) live in rural areas and smaller settlements. There must be more consideration of transport issues for smaller settlements and rural areas which currently account for 48% of all trips (compared with 32% for the four main cities). Even with plans for higher density living and the planned National Planning Framework, the majority of the population will continue to live in the historical settlement pattern and spatial planning will not change that pattern significantly even in the long term. Thus transport investment needs to focus on current spatial patterns as well as any future growth in demand.
From a rural perspective the recent Luas strike brought the options available to rural and Dublin commuters into sharp focus. As reported on RTE’s Morning Ireland, once alighting from a commuter train at Heuston, passengers had just four options: – the bus, bike rental, taxi or travel by foot. Most rural dwellers only have one option, travel by car! Of course roads can facilitate cycling, walking and bus services but in reality there are few footpaths, even fewer cycleways and not very frequent bus services (apart from on intercity routes).
Of course city dwellers will have more options, this is to be expected, but just because some of these are not working optimally is not a reason to forget what transport needs are required for rural and regional locations.
Now that the country has returned to economic growth and consideration of capital investment projects it will be important to ensure that there are improvements in accessibility to all regions especially to those centres which were relegated when funding was severely constrained.