Video: Ambitious £165m scheme for uninterrupted motorways through Belfast
Far-reaching plans to upgrade Northern Ireland's busiest road junction have been announced by Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy - although it's not known how it will be paid for yet.
The upgrade of the notorious bottleneck at the York Street Interchange in Belfast would be the final piece in the jigsaw that would allow traffic to flow freely from north to south and from east to west of the city.
>>Scroll down to view video<<
Launching his consultation on the planned interchange, which carries as many as 100,000 vehicles per day, Mr Kennedy estimated the cost at between £125m and £165m.
"The proposed improvements will separate through-traffic from the local streets by providing direct vehicle links between the Westlink, the M2 and M3. Also included in the proposals is the construction of a new bridge to carry York Street traffic over the junction," Mr Kennedy said.
"This is one of the most ambitious schemes planned for Belfast for decades and I would encourage everyone who cares about the development of our road infrastructure to get involved and take part in the public consultation process."
Construction would take up to three years and depends on funding being made available by the Executive.
The Department for Regional Development (DRD) will also be exploring the possibility of securing European grant aid to fund the upgrade.
Mr Kennedy yesterday urged the public - particularly local residents who will be affected by the construction - to visit his department's public exhibition in the Ramada Encore hotel in Saint Anne's Square.
There, a scale model and computer graphics of the scheme will be on display on Monday, February 9 from 2-9pm and Tuesday, February 10 from 10am-9pm.
"In response to the previous consultation on the scheme, the proposed York Street Bridge will now be widened to provide a new bus lane into the city and provide improved pedestrian and cycling facilities," he said.
"This will improve local access from north Belfast to the city centre."
The consultation runs from today until Tuesday, March 10 and a public inquiry into the scheme may be held later this year.
The minister said the sweeping scheme had the potential to unlock much of the traffic congestion in and around Belfast. Mr Kennedy said its design would take account of the local residents' views, including fears that it could cut off north Belfast from the rest of the city, and would fall into line with other plans for the area.
It is understood Translink is considering dualling its railway line there in the longer term. Interchange project manager Roy Spiers said DRD would work with Translink to ensure that, if needed, foundations for the line could be put in place to "future-proof" the scheme.
He said the entire interchange would need foundations piled 40 metres deep as it would be built on Belfast 'sleech', a mixture of wet clay, silt and sand with the "consistency of cold porridge" - and the water table is just below the surface. The area is subject to tidal issues in extreme circumstances, so the junction is designed with raised walls in underpasses for protection.
CBI Northern Ireland director Nigel Smyth said: "This is a vital link in Northern Ireland's strategic road network and is the cause of a significant amount of congestion on a daily basis. While it is critical that the project is taken forward with urgency, the reality is that the construction and completion of the interchange is still several years away.
"We would encourage the minister to look at other traffic management measures in the meantime that can be introduced to help reduce the current levels of congestion along the M1 between Sprucefield and Belfast. This might include hard shoulder running, improving capacity at exits before York Street and improved phasing of lights."
Factfile: how it will work
If the plans go ahead as envisaged, traffic travelling from the Westlink to the M2 will pass under the new York Street bridge, through an underpass and then rise to join the M2 onslip. Vehicles coming off the M2 will pass over Dock Street on a new bridge before dropping below ground level to reach the Westlink. New single lanes swooping into underpasses will connect the Westlink and M3 in both directions. York Street itself will be raised on a bridge over the new underpasses.