The multi-million pound upgrade of the York Street Interchange must go ahead to make Northern Ireland an attractive region for investment following Brexit, a haulage trade association has said.
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon has announced the terms of reference for a new review into how best to proceed on the project, which has been mired in delays for years.
The project is aimed at transforming traffic flow at the intersection of the Westlink, M2 and M3 – Northern Ireland's busiest junction.
However, environmental campaigners have voiced opposition to the scheme, saying the potential £165m cost of the project could be better spent on reducing transport emissions and enhancing sustainable transport.
Seamus Leheny, NI policy manager for the Freight Trade Association, told the Belfast Telegraph the York Street Interchange is a "chronic bottle neck" for the freight industry and private motorists.
He said around 100,000 vehicles use the interchange every day and that around 10% to 15% of these are goods vehicles.
"When you look at the clear evidence, the project will reduce congestion on the road network," he said.
"It will lower vehicle admissions because vehicles admit more when they are starting and stopping all the time. If you have consistent traffic flows that reduces that.
"An independent, quick and concise look at it should see the minister agree the scheme needs to proceed. If there does need to be minor adjustments, so be it, we can look at that and put it to consultation. We just need to see this scheme started as soon as possible."
Connectivity is going to be vital for Northern Ireland in the future if we want to sell ourselves as a region for investment.Seamus Leheny, Freight Trade Association
Mr Leheny said the project would not just help businesses in Belfast, but across Northern Ireland.
"If you are sending goods to the GB market, you have got to navigate the York Street Interchange, which for a 44 tonne truck the running cost of a truck is £1 a minute, so if you are sitting in traffic at York Street Interchange for half an hour, that has real costs for operators," he said.
Mr Leheny added that with the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol due to come into force in January, improvements to the York Street Interchange will make Northern Ireland a more attractive place for outside investment.
The Northern Ireland protocol sees the EU insist on customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
"Connectivity is going to be vital for Northern Ireland in the future if we want to sell ourselves as a region for investment. We need to show that goods can move easily to and from Northern Ireland," he added.
"Also, if you are going to have vehicles potentially having checks at Belfast Port, then lets make getting to and from the port as easy as possible to compensate for that."
The communities around the York Street Interchange are blighted by poor air quality, derelict land and shattered urban space.Malachai O'Hara, Green Party NI
However, environmental campaigns have said that building new roads is not the answer to traffic congestion.
Malachai O’Hara, deputy leader for the Green Party NI, added: "Instead, we must focus on enhancing sustainable transport.
"The communities around the York Street Interchange are blighted by poor air quality, derelict land and shattered urban space in part because government policy has prioritised the private car.
"I don’t believe that building more roads can sit alongside the Assembly’s recent declaration of a climate emergency and the long overdue environmental commitments in the New Decade New Approach deal.
“York Street disconnects north Belfast and Sailortown from the city centre.
"I hope this review is wide-ranging and radical enough to consider how the potential £165m cost of this project could be better spent on enhancing sustainable transport, reducing our transport emissions, reattaching north Belfast and Sailortown back to the city centre and promoting vibrant and liveable communities.”
Simon Hamilton, chief executive of Belfast Chamber, said: "Belfast Chamber has long supported this scheme. It is absolutely essential to the success not just of the Belfast economy but also that of the entire region.
"A short, sharp review to ensure that the scheme is forward looking and future proofed as the Minister indicates is a sensible step and it is right that a scheme of such size and significance considers issues like sustainable travel, improving road safety and connecting communities in the north of the city with the city centre, and we hope that it won’t be long before we hear the Minister announce a date for the commencement of construction on this vital piece of infrastructure”.
Last year the project was further delayed after the Court of Appeal ruled a contract award for the project was unlawful.
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said the review will consider how best to proceed in advance of moving to the procurement phase of the project.
Mrs Mallon said: “I recognise the strategic importance of the York Street Interchange. Its inclusion in the New Decade New Approach Agreement is a further indication of the significance of the project to our economic and societal wellbeing and I am determined to see it delivered.
“In advance of the next stage of the scheme, and in line with good practice in relation to the development of major transport projects, I have commissioned a short, sharp external review designed to ensure an approach to the scheme that is future-proofed and forward looking.
"This will be informed by stakeholders and specialists to ensure that any scheme is fit for purpose."