Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Viewpoint: Set Ulster on a new route map

As ever, the Christmas rush combines with the dark days of December to produce the worst traffic congestion of the year. In cities and towns across the province, traffic jams are the order of the day as too many cars try to cram into too few roads - and everyone is short of time.

All it takes, as last Wednesday evening in Belfast demonstrated, is a couple of accidents to produce deadlock. Traffic flow in the city is so dependent on a few major routes that congestion is inevitable in the event of a crash.

Now that devolution has been established, the buck stops with the Stormont Executive in general and with Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy in particular. Although funding for roads and public transport is being boosted in the draft Budget, major investment is required.

The completion in 2009 of the Westlink upgrade and the M2 improvement programme will ease the problem, but this is not a lasting solution. Indeed, the new bottleneck is likely to be the junction at York Street between Westlink and the M2, where a flyover is urgently needed.

Increasing capacity on the existing road network is welcome, but what is needed is a more radical approach. While there will always be a place for the car, particularly on cross-country journeys, the focus in the greater Belfast area must be on improving public transport.

Investment in new trains and track is paying a dividend by boosting the number of rail passengers, many of them commuters who have got fed up with wasting so much time in the traffic.

New buses have helped increase patronage on the Belfast Metro service, but an expansion of bus lanes and other priority measures will be required if schedules are to be maintained.

Encouragingly, Mr Murphy is prepared to think outside the box, as is shown by his enthusiasm for rapid transit. He has a vision of a new system which will criss-cross the city, linking west Belfast and Titanic Quarter, and connecting Queen's University with Dundonald.

The success of LUAS in Dublin shows that rapid transit, particularly when it is tram-based, can make a major contribution.

Another eye-catching suggestion is the proposal by Belfast architect Arthur Acheson for an underground railway. Although the costs are probably prohibitive, it would certainly solve many problems and move Belfast into the 21st century.

Whatever model is selected, public transport will only work if it is fast, frequent, comfortable and reliable - as well as being value for money.

At some stage, Northern Ireland must start to embrace long-term visionary thinking instead of opting endlessly for stop-gap solutions. With a vibrant new Executive now in office, there can surely be no better time than the present.

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