Green light for £130m York Street Interchange roads plan, but doubt remains over funding
The go-ahead for a massive £130million project aimed at easing traffic gridlock in Belfast is set to be announced today - even though uncertainty over funding remains.
Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard is to seek further reassurances from the government on finance for the York Street Interchange in the aftermath of the Brexit verdict.
He is expected to tell the Assembly today, however, that he intends to move forward on the scheme to tackle Belfast's biggest traffic bottleneck.
The aim is to replace the existing signal-operated junction at York Street with direct links between the Westlink/M1, M2 and M3 - the three busiest roads in Northern Ireland.
The project will also separate traffic through underpasses below the existing road and rail bridges, as well as underneath a new bridge at York Street.
The Sinn Fein minister is believed to have accepted the conclusion of a public inquiry that the need for the multi-million pound project has been demonstrated.
His department will now publish the formal 'intention to proceed' notice and kick-start a designation order for the scheme - but a linked vesting order is to remain effectively in limbo until the finance to build the interchange is secured.
Stormont has liaised in detail over recent years with the European Commission on the project as a priority case for EU co-financing which would provide up to 40% of the costs.
UK Chancellor Philip Hammond recently indicated projects already signed off by the Commission are guaranteed funding while the UK remains within the EU - which is likely to be the case for the next two years.
But Minister Hazzard, who will be quizzed by MLAs in the Assembly this morning, believes Mr Hammond's statement does not go far enough and he is to make clear he will continue to press the Treasury.
He will also warn MLAs that the envisaged timetable for EU withdrawal does carry a significant potential negative effect on the project - which has been in planning since 2009, and was first announced last year.
The minister believes he will not be able to apply for EU funding until early 2018.
The busy Belfast junction carries 100,000 vehicles each day.
But the decision to press on may have been influenced by recent figures revealing Belfast is the third most congested city in the UK.
Traffic info company Inrix used real-time data in a study over four years which established average speeds and congestion levels in 18 urban areas.
London drivers were the worst affected, stuck in jams for an average of 101 hours a year - up from 72 hours in 2012, an increase of 40%. Greater Manchester was second with 51 hours lost to drivers in 2015, up from 45 in 2012, and Belfast next, with drivers spending 38 hours in traffic delays in 2015, compared to 31 in 2012, up 22%.
There have been claims however that the massive York Street plan could lead to one to two road accidents each week.
Residents also raised concerns over air quality, loss of natural light and the proximity of added traffic lanes to properties, along with existing demands to regenerate areas around North Queen Street.
It has also been reported that a memorial to the 15 victims of the 1971 UVF bomb at McGurk's Bar on North Queen Street would have to be demolished if the project goes ahead.
The Belfast Telegraph understands, however, that the minister has concluded the likely significant environmental impact of the scheme has been properly assessed.
And it is understood he accepts the project will not adversely affect the integrity of the Belfast Lough Special Protection Area and the Belfast Lough Open Water Special Protection Area.