The A5 may be running out of road. The latest threat to the billion-pound vanity project came at the weekend when Dublin’s transport minister, Leo Varadkar, mused aloud that the Republic may have to go back to Europe next year with its begging-bowl extended for yet another bailout if public spending isn’t cut back even further.
Health, education and social welfare spending have already been slashed as the Fine Gael-Labour coalition strives to stave off bankruptcy.
Bunging half-a-billion euro to a project which will clip 15 minutes off Derry-Dublin road journeys will not strike the plain people of the south as a sensible, or acceptable, use of scarce resources.
A public inquiry into the proposed 83-km dual-carriageway from Newbuildings to Aughnacloy is underway — although the outcome would seem to have been pre-empted by statements from former Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness that the road will be gouged across the countryside come what may.
“Let nobody be in any doubt whatsoever that these two vital projects (the A5 and the upgrading of the Larne-Belfast road) will go ahead,” Mr McGuinness told the Assembly in January.
However, the list of those with doubts now includes not only the Dublin transport minister, but Conor Murphy’s successor at Stormont.
“I will be looking closely at the level of proposed investment on roads such as the A5 . . . ,” newly-appointed Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has said. “There are sizable pressures on the capital budget in the department and difficult choices will have to be made.”
In contrast, the project has been relentlessly pushed by the nationalist parties, which see it as a practical expression of an all-Ireland dimension. Joint-funding was agreed in 2006 as part of the package which saw Sinn Fein declaring full support for the PSNI.
The plan has been driven from the outset by political, rather than economic, considerations. The interests of the environment haven’t figured at all.
Although much has been made by supporters of the scheme of the supposed business benefits for areas adjacent to the route and for the neglected North-West generally, no evidence for this proposition has been produced.
But evidence to the contrary emerges in a 2006 e-mail from the Department of Regional Development Roads Service, released last week by Newbuildings-based Alternative A5 Alliance (AA5A) spokesman Victor Christie.
“The route to which you refer proposes a parallel motorway from Derry to Ballygawley (A5) to Armagh to Newry (A28). Unfortunately, the traffic figures on this route (approximately 13,000 and 9,000 vehicles annual average daily traffic respectively) do not merit the construction of a motorway, as a viable business case is not achievable, even based on traffic growth over the next 30 years . . .
“In our current strategic road Improvement programme we have the A5 Omagh Throughpass (£10m) . . . Roads Service is proposing £130m of improvements on the A5 between Londonderry and Victoria Bridge, including bypasses of New Buildings, Magheramason, Strabane and Sion Mills.”
The Alternative A5 Alliance has been advocating just such an alternative for rendering the road safer — plus improved public transport and the restoration of the Derry-Dublin rail link — at lobbies and public meetings since then Regional Development Minister Murphy's plan was announced. But the party-political imperative has so far trumped rational argument.
The role of Roads Service has now downgraded in the interim, Mr Murphy having hired in a London consultancy firm at a projected cost of £30m to advise Roads Service on the road.
No cost-benefit comparison of the A5 and the alternative plan has been undertaken. In evidence to the inquiry, DRD project sponsor Conor Loughrey conceded that the alternative had been examined in “no great detail”.
The proposed A5 may be unique in bypassing bypasses — the Newtownstewart bypass, completed in 2002, the second stage of the Strabane bypass (2003) and phase three of the Omagh throughpass (2006). The three projects cost a total of more than £20m.
Friends of the Earth director James Orr said last month: “By all means upgrade the existing road, but this billion-pound new road will be a disaster for Northern Ireland... It will be a permanent scar and a statement to the folly of our politicians.
“The economic argument is a red herring. Just look what happened in southern Ireland. The obsession with gleaming new roads did nothing to prevent economic collapse.”
Quite so. The dual-carriageway is a social and environmental cul-de-sac. Time for a u-turn.
Eamonn McCann was honoured in the Amnesty International Media Awards last week for his reporting of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry