Questions raised over future of York Street roads upgrade
The future of a multimillion-pound roads upgrade in Belfast has been called into question after a new construction tender was advertised.
The long-delayed York Street Interchange project is designed to ease some of Northern Ireland's worst traffic congestion at a major bottleneck between the Westlink, M2 and M3.
In 2017 the Department for Infrastructure said a contractor had been appointed, but this decision was recently quashed in a legal challenge.
In September the Court of Appeal held that the process used to appoint the contractor had been unlawful.
A new tender has now been advertised, to be opened in June 2020 with construction aiming to start in 2022 and a budget of between £100m and £120m, as opposed to a previous estimate of £130m to £165m.
The project is supposed to be paid for with part of the £1bn secured by the DUP through its confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives.
But with a General Election to be held next month, transport expert Wesley Johnston said it was unclear where the funding would come from.
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There are also concerns that work could not get under way without approval from a Stormont minister.
"What I do know is that the York Street Interchange was not in the Programme for Government (before Stormont collapsed), so the only reason the scheme was going to go ahead was because the DUP negotiated funding for it as part of the Tory pact," Mr Johnston said.
"It couldn't start because of the legal challenge, so they're going to have to re-run the process.
"But there may not even be a DUP-Tory pact by the time this thing's ready. Where's the funding going to come from?
"What we don't know is where the funding is now. Has it been allocated to something else? If the Tories win the election outright then why would they fund this? It would be a part of a pact they no longer need. It's not an Executive priority and it wasn't part of the Programme for Government before Stormont collapsed, which is what civil servants are still working with."
Mr Johnston said the advertisement for a new contract with funding attached was no guarantee the scheme would go ahead.
"You can put a project out to tender with a slightly undefined start date and there will be some expectation that it will get funding," he added.
"A tender process takes nine months. The A5 project, for example, was awarded seven to eight years ago and it still hasn't started.
"The contractors were appointed for the entire scheme, even though there isn't funding for the scheme.
"So, this latest stage doesn't automatically imply the funding is there for York Street."
It is understood the Department for Infrastructure believes that in light of the Court of Appeal judgment, the design phase of the scheme would be best advanced through a new procurement competition.
However, any decision to begin construction would require ministerial approval.
A Department for Infrastructure spokesperson said: "Confidence and supply agreement funding was provided to the department via the normal capital budget for two years only - 2018-19 and 2019-20.
"(This allowed for) the progression of a range of infrastructure projects, including the continued development of the York Street Interchange design phase."