Concerns have been raised about a mystery set of roadworks which are snarling up one of Belfast’s busiest routes.
As thousands of irate rush hour drivers were brought to a halt by new bus lanes in the city centre this week, some motorists had an extra obstacle to add to their misery.
Once they had negotiated the severe tailbacks caused by a new traffic system, College Square, close to Millfield, threw up more delays with two lanes closed.
Barriers and cones funnelled two lanes of traffic heading towards the Metropolitan College into a one-lane bottleneck, preventing frustrated motorists from accessing an off-slip to turn onto Castle Street.
Another turn-off onto Castle Street, yards up from the main junction, was also blocked off.
Despite the seemingly urgent nature of the works at a traffic island, given the extra disruption they were causing, the Belfast Telegraph couldn’t establish who was responsible for them.
Indeed, many drivers who passed the area over three days didn’t once report seeing anyone actually working at the site.
When we asked the Department for Regional Development (DRD) we were told it had not been able to find out who was carrying out the work and therefore whether it was manned, and why it had not been delayed given the other disruption.
By yesterday evening, however, the lanes had been reopened and all related signs removed and placed on the traffic island. The work had not been finished.
Chair of Stormont’s regional development committee, Jimmy Spratt, said he would be quizzing the department over the phantom works today.
“I do think, if Roads Service are involved, they should be taking a serious look at this and making sure there aren’t unnecessary roadworks ongoing,” he said.
“If it has been reported there is no one working at the scene then I don’t understand that. To give the bus lanes an opportunity there needs to be a minimum of roadworks over this period.”
Meanwhile, calls have been made for bus lanes to be opened to non-emergency ambulances while the new system is still causing so much disruption.
Non-emergency ambulances do not currently use bus lanes when the lanes are in operation but a Northern Ireland Ambulance Service spokesman said it is working with the DRD and the PSNI to review this.
But Fidelma Carolan, Unison's regional organiser, has called for swifter action.
She said: “If these non-emergency vehicles are delayed transporting patients, they are not available for a potential emergency or they are not available for another pick-up.”
Calling on the DRD to act urgently, she added: “Surely it's just a matter of the organisations just coming to an agreement. I do not think that it has to take that long.”
DRD chiefs say the new system will take four-six weeks to bed in. But three days after the changes took effect, organisations representing motorists have called on roads chiefs to think again.
Paul Watters, the AA's head of roads policy, said he thought the Belfast On The Move plan behind the changes was ‘radical' when he saw it last year.
“It's got to be tweaked for the functioning of the city,” he said.
Ciaran de Burca, the man in charge of revamping Belfast’s traffic flow, has meanwhile warned that the PSNI will be out in force fining motorists £30 if they make use of the empty bus lanes.
Meanwhile, Civil Service has 1,000 car park spaces for its own commuters
By Adrian Rutherford
Stormont has been urged to lead by example over slashing car use after it emerged more than £1m was spent providing free parking for civil servants.
Around 1,000 spaces have been allocated for officials in Belfast alone, according to figures released by the Finance Minister last December.
Yesterday Ciaran de Burca, an official with the Department for Regional Development, urged people to make greater use of public transport in an effort to cut cars on the city’s roads.
Mr de Burca uses public transport to get to work.
And Jonathan Isaby, from the TaxPayers' Alliance pressure group, said it was time for other civil servants to follow his example.
He pointed to hundreds of civil servants “who enjoy access to parking spaces funded by hard-pressed taxpayers”.
“For many in Northern Ireland, a car is the only reasonable way they have of getting about and politicians and civil servants would do well to remember that.
“They are certainly poorly placed at Stormont to lecture anyone else about car use, given the number of parking spaces made available to Government employees.”
Details of Civil Service car parking spaces were revealed in reply to an Assembly question from UUP MLA Roy Beggs last December.
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said 1,185 spaces were allocated to civil servants across Northern Ireland at a cost of £1,039,273.
The vast majority (1,006) are in Belfast at a cost of £997,553. Another 93 are located in Omagh with 30 in Banbridge.
At the time Mr Wilson said: “All departments review the need for spaces on an annual basis.”
Civil servants based at the Department for Regional Development, which is headquartered on
Adelaide Street close to Belfast City Hall, can make use of a car park in Clarence Court.
A DRD spokeswoman said there were 261 spaces in the car park, all free to use for staff from both it and the Department of the Environment.
Travelwise NI, a DRD initiative which encourages car-sharing, has just under 4,500 members. DUP MLA Mervyn Storey travels into Belfast most days from his home in Ballymoney.
He says when he needs to get into the city centre he takes public transport.
He said: “I think the department should be setting an example on this.”
Surely there has never been a worse time to be a car owner
By Claire McNeilly
Is this the end of the road for motorists?
You could be forgiven for thinking they'd already reached the point of no return.
And, surely, it has never been a worse time to be a car owner in Northern Ireland?
For a start, we already pay the highest petrol and diesel prices in the UK.
Furthermore, we have been subjected to crippling insurance premiums, where it can cost more here to insure a small runaround than it does to legalise a powerful sports car across the Irish Sea.
Oh, and let's not forget the traffic attendants, eager to punish any parking slip-up with a £90 fine, while those dreaded clampers have never been more prevalent.
Yet we've accepted all that and, ultimately, got on with it.
These new bus lanes, however, could well be a bump on the road too far.
It doesn't help that “too bad” is the translated response from the powers-that-be.
Efficiency is one thing, misery another altogether.
So far the drive for efficiency has meant people having to get up earlier, get the kids up earlier and sit in traffic — burning up that high-priced fuel — for longer.
Punctual people are turning up for work late, patient people are becoming impatient, the well-mannered are becoming ill-tempered and many plans have been disrupted or even ruined before the sun has fully risen.
If all this was to oil the wheels of a renowned rapid transport system, then well and good.
Unfortunately, Belfast is not one of those city names that trips off the lips when discussing such things.
You come away from places like Manchester extolling its virtues in that department — but not here.