Time has now finally come for the York Street upgrade
Ambitious plans to dramatically revamp Northern Ireland's busiest junction could signal a welcome end to a 60-year, stop-start roads policy here, writes Wesley Johnston
Anyone familiar with Northern Ireland's road network cannot fail to notice its bizarre inconsistencies and strange features. Why, for example, is there a dual-carriageway between Cookstown and Moneymore, but not between Belfast and Londonderry? Why does the M2 suddenly turn into the M22 as you pass Antrim? Why does the M2 split in two for a mile near Antrim hospital? Why is there an M1, M2, M3 and M5, but no M4?
In the 1950s, traffic on the province's roads was rising at a staggering rate and planners were increasingly alarmed by the prospects of a gridlocked future. Initially, local councils were responsible for roads and many of the roads built in the 1950s and 1960s were built in small stages by local planners. Hence, why there is a rather incongruous dual-carriageway between Newtownards and Comber - it was built by the local council. Similarly, the roundabout-ridden Bangor ring road was planned and built locally.
Roads in the 1950s were of a much poorer standard - even than roads we would consider poor today - and a surprising amount of upgrade work was carried out in the 1960s and early-1970s. For example, the A6 between Castledawson and Londonderry was almost entirely reconstructed between 1960 and 1975. We have many two-lane roads that are equipped with hard shoulders - including long stretches of the A4 and A6 - but what many people don't realise is that this is an almost unique feature of Northern Ireland and is rarely found in Britain.
By the late-1950s, it had become obvious that merely upgrading existing roads was not going to be sufficient and plans evolved to build new, high-capacity "approach roads" to take traffic past suburban Belfast. These soon evolved into "motorways", with the south approach becoming the M1 and the north approach the M2. The east approach (towards Bangor) and the south-east approach (towards Carryduff) were never built, but would have been the M3 and M4.
In 1963, Robert Matthew published his Belfast Regional Survey & Plan. This was in response to concerns about the continued unchecked sprawl of Belfast into the countryside and worries that industry was too concentrated in the city.
He proposed the expansion of regional towns, such as Ballymena, Larne, Bangor and Downpatrick, to absorb the growing population. He also proposed creating an entirely new city between Portadown and Lurgan.
Later called Craigavon, it was not a success, largely due to exaggerated population-growth predictions. In keeping with the thinking of his day, Matthew proposed to link these towns to Belfast by a network of fast roads.
This led, in 1964, to the most ambitious set of road proposals in Northern Ireland's history. The M1 would now go all the way to Dungannon, the M2 to Coleraine, a new M5 to Carrickfergus, an M6 to Larne, M7 to Dundonald and an M8 roughly following the route of the Hillhall Road between Belfast and Lisburn.
There was then to be an M22 from Antrim to Castledawson, an M23 from near Ballymoney to Londonderry and an M11 from Lisburn to Newry. These roads were so expensive that central government took responsibility for most of the funding and work initially got under way on the M1, M2 and M22.
By now, Belfast Corporation had realised that all these motorways going into Belfast city centre would have to end somewhere. In 1967, after toying with more modest plans for an inner ring road, they announced plans for the Belfast urban motorway, which would have been an elevated, three-lane road built right around the city centre, with links to the M1, M2 (York Street interchange), M3, M4 and M7. Work actually got under way on the northern portion of the urban motorway in the early-1970s, but had to be halted due to the Troubles.
During the 1960s, it became apparent that motorways were much more expensive to build than anticipated and the pace of work on the M1 and M2 slowed. By 1969, some plans - including the M6, M8 and M11 - had been dropped.
From 1969, the Troubles became the major influence on roads, as funding got diverted to security and after direct rule was introduced in 1972 all work on the motorway network was halted - the M5 being the only further part of the plan that was allowed to proceed, opening in 1980. The split in the carriageways of the M2 at Antrim was where the M2 would have headed off towards Ballymena, with the remainder being the M22 towards Castledawson, itself only built as far as Randalstown.
Plans for the urban motorway refused to die, however. Funding pressures and public opposition, especially in west and north Belfast, forced a re-think. The acrimonious Lavery Inquiry in 1977 resulted in a scaled-down plan, where the south and eastern parts of the urban motorway were scrapped and the western portion was reduced to a partly ground-level and partly-depressed dual-carriageway connecting the M1 and M2, which was completed as the Westlink in 1983.
Only the northern flank, across the River Lagan, remained in its original, elevated form and this was opened in 1995 and given the number M3 - the number originally reserved for the motorway to Bangor. Lavery decreed that the meeting-point of the two sections at York Street should remain a ground-level junction with traffic signals.
By the millennium it was clear that Westlink was running well above capacity and a major upgrade was needed if more journeys were to be facilitated. This resulted in a major upgrade where the ground-level junctions were replaced by underpasses, completed in 2009. York Street junction, however, remained, due to lack of money at that time. This is now the last remaining bottleneck on what was the Belfast urban motorway and the time has finally come to do something about it.
The DRD's plans for a fully freeflow junction have come full circle, since this junction bears an uncanny resemblance to what was proposed in 1967. It also provides a unique opportunity to take long-distance traffic off the surface streets and reclaim them for local use.
It is likely that this will be the last major upgrade to the Belfast motorway network.
- Wesley Johnston is author of The Belfast Urban Motorway (2014) and runs the Northern Ireland Roads website (www.wesleyjohnston.com/roads)