Belfast's countdown to new bus lane misery continues... even though the overall plan is under review
Officials are ploughing ahead with a controversial new bus lane - even though the overall plan to revamp Belfast's transport system is under review.
The Upper Newtownards Road will be reduced from four lanes to two from next Monday to accommodate buses.
Cars will be banned from the one kilometre stretch from 7.30am to 9.30am, and 3.30pm to 6.30pm, prompting fears of chaos on one of the city's busiest routes.
The bus lane is part of "enabling works" for Belfast Rapid Transit - an ambitious project that will revamp the public transport system.
Belfast Rapid Transit is currently subject to a review, and no contract is in place, although the Department for Regional Development insisted this was routine.
The details emerged during a recent meeting of the department's scrutiny committee.
Translink's chief operating officer Philip O'Neill told MLAs: "The department has decided to review it under what we know as the PAR (project assessment review) - that type of mechanism.
"We participated because we are a key stakeholder. It would not be right to say that we have a contract. We are operator designate at the minute, so we are awaiting the agreement for the project to go ahead."
Mr O'Neill said the review would look at costs and make sure they are still aligned with the business case.
David McNarry, a member of the DRD committee, said: "This review is a complete review of the Rapid Transit project.
"So how can you put bus lanes in for something when there isn't a contract in place?"
In response a DRD spokesman said: "The review process is applicable to major projects across all departments in Northern Ireland and the Belfast Rapid Transit project is no exception.
"The review process, which involves a number of reviews at key project stages, continues throughout the life-cycle of a project, from inception to completion.
"As such, the fact that a review takes place is an indication only that a project has reached a key stage in its life-cycle."
The bus lane, running in both directions between Sandown and the Knock Road, is due to come into operation on August 10.
However, there are fears it will add to the already chronic traffic problems in Ballyhackamore.
The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association said there had been a lack of recent communication on the scheme. Its office is based in Ballyhackamore.
Chief executive Glyn Roberts said that, coupled with the closure of Dee Street Bridge until December, it could gridlock much of east Belfast.
"The Upper Newtownards Road is a main arterial route for Belfast and is a vital route for shoppers visiting Belfast city centre," he said. "We are also worried that traders in Ballyhackamore will experience difficulties."
However, Sustrans, a sustainable transport organisation, said bus lanes were an essential part of an efficient, high quality public transport system.
"The alternative vision to that is one where the car is king - a congested city centre full of cars, with poor air quality, unpleasant and noisy," its director Gordon Clarke said.
"We know that park and ride facilities at Cairnshill (in south Belfast) have taken two to three miles of traffic off our roads.
"During the last public transport strike cars were allowed in bus lanes. The chaos that followed gave us a glimpse of what a world without public transport might look like."
He added: "A city for the car is an outdated and inappropriate agenda."