One of Northern Ireland’s biggest road upgrades was officially opened by Roads Minister Conor Murphy yesterday.
It has taken three years to complete the £104m M1/Westlink upgrade, which required the building of two underpasses and widening of the M1 between Stockman’s Lane and Divis Street.
The Westlink scheme hit the headlines in August last year after torrential rains caused widespread flooding across Northern Ireland.
Only weeks after the Broadway underpass had been opened, it was filled to the brim with 20 feet of floodwater after the Clowney River overflowed.
At the height of construction more than 450 people were employed on the M1/Westlink and M2 improvement schemes and over two million man hours have been worked — the equivalent of 50 men working for 20 years.
A large temporary bridge had to be built at Grosvenor Road.
The project also required the diversion of the Clowney and Blackstaff Rivers and major underground services at Broadway to allow the underpasses to be built.
Mr Murphy said the Westlink scheme should ensure shorter and more reliable journey times and was one of the most complex and challenging civil engineering projects ever undertaken by Roads Service.
“Given the complexity of this project and the difficulties that the construction team faced I welcome the early completion of this project some five months ahead of programme. It is also important to acknowledge the contractor's excellent safety record on this major scheme, which has been delivered without any serious accidents,” he said.
The minister said road users had experienced some delays during construction but the “widely predicted traffic congestion had never materialised”.
“The limited impact of the works on traffic is a result of careful planning by Roads Service and the contractor HMC and the introduction of a range of temporary traffic management measures to minimise disruption. These included the creation of two new park and ride sites at Blacks Road and Sprucefield, with a dedicated bus service along the M1 hard shoulder.”
An independent team of experts were commissioned to investigate why the multi-million pound structure became submerged last August.
The experts, who are still carrying out hydraulic tests on a scale model of the complex road, river and drainage system, have warned it could happen again if changes are not made to the flood defence system. Amey Consulting said the level of rainfall that fell on Belfast had not been seen since 1914, but the underpass should still have coped.
Work to widen the M2 between Greencastle and Sandyknowes is almost complete, with new bridges at Longland’s and Collinbridge. Hightown Bridge was reopened to traffic in September.The Westlink will be closed on Sunday as it hosts the Between the Bridges sponsored run along the road to raise money for local charities. The route will be closed between Stockman’s Lane and Clifton Street junctions from 9am to 1pm on Sunday March 8. Signed diversion routes will be in operation.
The idea behind the 10k/5k run is to mark the opening of the improvement scheme and raise money for the Northern Ireland Hospice.