Belfast Telegraph

Can we get a move on please? The great roads traffic jam

Dr Wesley Johnston on Northern Ireland roads

Westminster is spending £15bn on road-building in England and Wales, while here the upgrade of the Londonderry-Coleraine rail link is mired in delay and the A5 and A6 extensions remain unbuilt. Just what will it take to get Northern Ireland moving, asks Wesley Johnston.

Fifty years ago, in 1964, the Northern Ireland government announced plans to build a motorway from Belfast to Londonderry. Half-a-century on, and we are still waiting. And while the route east of Randalstown is of a motorway standard, the rest of the A6 road remains largely a single-carriageway.

It also emerged last month that there would be further delays to the upgrade of the railway line between Derry and Coleraine, and it was further revealed that the estimated cost of the scheme had almost doubled.

Meanwhile, the UK government this week announced a £15bn plan to upgrade some of the worst road bottlenecks in England and Wales, including building a "superhighway" underneath Stonehenge. All this has served to concentrate minds on the development of the road network in Northern Ireland.

There are plans to upgrade further stretches of the Belfast-Derry road, but with the most recent addition being the Toome bypass some 10 years ago, it is understandable that there are frustrations in the north west about the pace of change.

Investment in new roads in Northern Ireland has risen significantly since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, after years at a very low level, and is now at its highest level since the heady years of the local motorway building boom (1962-75).

But with traffic levels rising almost continuously during the second half of the 20th century, it has proven impossible for road-building to keep pace with traffic growth. Indeed, all policies aimed at doing so were officially abandoned by the Roads Service in the mid-1990s.

Today, TransportNI (as the Roads Service was renamed last year) focus their money on what they call the strategic road network. These are the small sub-set of roads deemed most critical to linking the province together and include the roads between the cities and large towns.

Even by restricting their remit to these roads, there is still an enormous number of worthy schemes that could be carried out. But there is never enough money to build them all, so they have to be prioritised. These priorities are decided in a range of ways, including:

n Congestion. Roads which are very badly congested waste time, as travellers have to wait in queues. They harm economic activity by putting people off travelling and contribute to pollution caused by large numbers of stationary vehicles. The current upgrade of the A2 Shore Road at Greenisland was primarily motivated by this factor.

n Safety. Long-distance rural routes often have a history of collisions. Dual-carriageway upgrades are, perhaps, the most effective means of tackling these, since they greatly diminish the worst types of crashes, which are typically caused by head-on collisions, overtaking and turning movements. For example, between 2004 and 2010, 10 people died on the short stretch of the A4 between Dungannon and Ballygawley. In the four years since it was upgraded to dual-carriageway (in 2010), only one person has lost their life on the road.

n Cost/benefit. Each proposed scheme is weighed on the basis of how much benefit it will bring economically, against how much it will cost. Any scheme for which the latter outweighs the former is unlikely to be built, while schemes that perform better are more likely to get built than those that do not score as well.

n Political considerations. The engineers at TransportNI plan road works under the direction of the Minister for Regional Development, currently the Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy. It is ultimately the minister who has the final say over which schemes get the go-ahead. In theory, this process allows the electorate to have some political or sociological input into where available money is spent.

Thus, a minister may decide that a particular area deserves additional infrastructure in order to promote economic development, or to correct past imbalances. For example, under the tenure of the previous minister, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, a number of schemes in the north west were given a higher priority than in the past - namely upgrades of the A5 and A6.

Under the current minister, who it must be said has continued to progress those schemes, it is notable that the upgrade of the A26 between Ballymena and Ballymoney ended up progressing prior to any further work on the A6.

So where does the north west stand today? A number of schemes have been carried out in Derry in recent years, namely the dualling of the Crescent Link, completion of the Skeoge Link and the dual-carriageway to the airport. There are also several plans in the pipeline to help roads linking to the region.

Firstly, the DRD remains committed to the A5 upgrade. This £844m scheme envisions the entire road from Ballygawley to Derry, via Omagh and Strabane, being upgraded to dual-carriageway.

The plan was conceived seven years ago, with approximately half the funding coming from Dublin. Dublin decided to "postpone" their contribution three years ago, but the DRD decided to press ahead with a more limited scheme that would see two sections - Newbuildings, to the north of Strabane, and Ballygawley, to the south of Omagh - constructed first.

These schemes were about to get under way in autumn 2012, but there was a legal challenge by a group called the Alternative A5 Alliance, which succeeded in having the project halted on a technicality related to how the environmental assessments were carried out. The scheme is now back in the planning stages.

While the current signs are that the two initial sections will still proceed to construction, the legal challenge has resulted in an approximate five-year delay, with the start of construction now possible around 2017.

Secondly, TransportNI has a plan to upgrade the A6 from the end of the M22 motorway at Randalstown to Castledawson. This includes the notorious Moneynick Road, the poorest-standard stretch of the entire A6. While there is an ongoing planning delay around the design of a junction at Castledawson, the minister is indicating - and I expect - that the construction of a dual-carriageway from the M22 to Toome will be the next major road scheme to get funding in Northern Ireland. Indeed, a process to appoint a contractor is already under way in case money becomes available. Finally, there is an ambitious £350-£390m scheme to upgrade the A6 from Derry to Dungiven, including a bypass of the latter.

While the signs are that the cash to build this scheme will not be available for some years, the DRD minister has been increasingly hinting that he will proceed with the Dungiven bypass component of the project at an earlier date, bringing huge benefits to the only remaining town on the whole road that does not have a bypass.

  • Dr Wesley Johnston is a commentator and researcher on Northern Ireland roads. He blogs at: http://wesleyjohnston.wordpress.com

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