Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Why we need to apply the brakes to £400m road plan

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

We have Joe Costello to thank for renewing hope that common sense may prevail after all regarding the proposed dual carriageway from Derry to Aughnacloy.

The Irish Labour Party spokesman on transport made it plain last week that there’s no guarantee the southern subsidy of the project will be forthcoming if Labour is part of whatever government emerges in the South in the new year. “Giving Northern Ireland £400m towards its roads is not a priority for the Labour Party.”

Even supporters of the dual carriageway might privately agree that when payments to people with disabilities and to carers are being slashed, when the minimum wage is being cut by 12% and welfare rates by at least 8%, when a jobs freeze is being imposed on health and education, it would be sheer irresponsibility, not to mention downright immoral, to bung half a billion euro towards gouging out a road across the Northern countryside from Newbuildings to the border.

Yet some Northern reaction has been of horror. Said the SDLP’s Pól O’Callaghan: “We must get assurances that the project will continue to progress. It has to be placed as a top priority for the council.”

West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty asked: “Where does this leave the Labour Party’s purported commitment to the principle of ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, as enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation.”

Over the top or what?

The plan to dual the A5 did not emerge from any serious study — no environmental audit, cost-benefit analysis or comparative study of other options prior to the announcement of a done deal — but from the St Andrews talks of October 2006. A major all-Ireland project was part of a package intended to balance Sinn Fein’s agreement to support the PSNI. Hence the extravagant anger now at Costello’s suggestion.

A coherent opposition case has been put forward by the A5 Alternatives group which has not been refuted but simply ignored.

A clue to the thinking which buttresses the contrived rationale for the plan came last December when Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy answered questions on the project in the Assembly: “The construction phase is planned to commence in 2012 subject to a successful outcome of the public inquiry scheduled for summer 2011 and availability of finance.

“Due to the length of this project it was divided into three contracts and was awarded as follows:

“Section 1 from Newbuildings to Sion Mills has been awarded to the Balfour Beatty/BAM/FP Mc Cann Joint Venture.

“Section 2 from Sion Mills to Omagh has been awarded to the Roadbridge/Sisk/PT McWilliam Joint Venture.

“Section 3 from Omagh to south of Aughnacloy at the border with Co Monaghan has been awarded to the Graham/Farrans Joint Venture.”

That’s virtually every giant construction company in these islands, all of which will have been rubbing their hands with glee |at the prospective profits dangled before them by the Sinn Fein |minister. They will even now be piling pressure on the department for the project to go ahead.

The consultancy industry , too, will have been cock-a-hoop at the minister’s statement: “My department’s Roads Service has advised that Mouchel were appointed to the A5 project in October 2007, and provide professional advice to Roads Service on a wide range of issues including engineering, environmental, economic and traffic aspects of the scheme.

“Roads Service has paid Mouchel £15,583,276, in relation to development work completed to date. It is anticipated that they will be paid around £32m under their current commission, which extends to the end of the public inquiry phase.

“If a successful outcome is obtained at public inquiry, it is anticipated that further costs to completion of the project would be in the order of £15m-£20m.”

The presentation is somewhat confused but seems to mean that London company Mouchel has been hired in at a projected cost of around £50m of public money — this despite the railing against the use of private consultants heard day and daily at Stormont.

Nobody doubts that the A5 needs upgrading. The Newbuildings to Strabane section includes a number of stretches which, particularly in bad weather, are a nightmare to drive. There are bends which urgently need straightening out and parts which would benefit from construction of a passing lane.

But there’s no demonstrable need for an 83-kilometre dual carriageway. The leading British transport analyst Christian Wolmer recently spoke to a packed meeting at Kelly’s Inn between Omagh and Ballygawley and took the case for dualling apart. Not that anyone in the department will have been listening, the political imperative having trumped all other considerations.

At least as many jobs could be created by renewing the rail line from Derry to Dublin and upgrading the A5 for safety. This would cost less and would inflict much less damage on the environment. Joe Costello has provided us with space to think again. We should grasp the opportunity.

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