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Local needs? Or national priorities? The problem with building new roads in Ireland

“We continue to build more roads and widen more roads and the congestion doesn’t improve the traffic, it just fills the extra space that’s created.”

ON ANY GIVEN weekday in Tipperary town, trucks, cars, and other vehicles clog up the centre as they snake their way east and west across the county.

The traffic includes heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) driving to or from Rosslare harbour in Wexford or the port of Foynes in Limerick, as well as many other cars and trucks heading to and from different counties. 

For most vehicles, there is no choice but to drive straight through the centre, where two national primary roads – the N24 and N74 – converge, with no bypass option to avoid Tipperary.

On average, according to traffic data from Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), there are 80,000 vehicle movements through the town every week. 

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“It goes all day. There are key parts of the day where it gets busier, but you could be driving into the town at 9 o’clock in the morning and be hit with a tailback, you could be driving in at two o’clock in the afternoon and be hit with a tailback,” says local Independent councillor and campaigner Anne Marie Ryan.

Ryan is a member of the March4Tipp campaign group that advocates for the improvement of the area. The group has long called for a bypass to be built to help ease the heavy traffic, which they say has a hugely negative effect on the area.

“We can’t create a safe space and we can’t do much without public realm enhancement until we get the traffic out of the town. It is choking our town centre,” says Ryan. 

There have been successive plans going back decades to build a bypass. Most recently, the government’s 2018 National Development Plan committed to improving the stretch of the N24 from Cahir in Tipperary to Limerick Junction, which passes through Tipperary town. 

The project is currently at Phase 2 Option Selection, where people can have their say on six proposed routes, or explore alternative options to building a road.

Having examined the routes and extensively lobbied local politicians, Ryan says that there is a sense among locals that they could finally be getting their bypass.

The situation in Tipperary is an example of the complex relationship between the need to support struggling communities across the country, and government commitments to move away from building roads towards more environmentally sustainable modes of transport.  

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Building roads

Road building in Ireland has come under the spotlight in recent years as the country struggles to meet its targets around reducing harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Bill 2020 – which was signed into law by President Michael D Higgins on Friday – commits to reducing Ireland’s total GHG emissions by 51% from 2018 levels by 2030.

Transport accounts for about 20% of Ireland’s total emissions (this fell to 18% last year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which hugely reduced people’s movement), and is the sector most tied to economic activity.

Between 1990 and 2019, Ireland’s transport emissions went up by 136%, compared to the EU average of 20%. Private car journeys are the biggest contributor to these emissions. The 2019 National Road Survey found that three-quarters of all journeys are made by car. 

In the past, the EU heavily financed road building projects as they were seen as key infrastructure to support economic growth. This has changed, however, as the EU and the rest of the world work to decarbonise transport. 

The 2020 Programme for Government commits to a 2:1 ratio of expenditure between new public transport infrastructure and new roads over the lifetime of the government.

There are currently 38 major road projects underway across the country at various levels of completion, from the early pre-planning and pre-appraisal stages, to being constructed. 

Not building roads

Experts argue that Ireland needs to shift away from road building and towards investing in public transport, such as rail, bus and tram networks, if it is to have any hope of meeting its climate goals.

“What many people don’t realise is that the number of cars on Irish roads has increased dramatically in the past 30 to 40 years,” says architect and sustainable transport activist Ciarán Ferrie. 

“In the late 1980s there were about 900,000 cars on Irish roads and today there are 2.1 million cars on Irish roads.

“So we need to provide alternatives for people, more sustainable alternatives so that people will choose to use public transport, whether it’s trains or trams or buses. And people will choose to walk or cycle when the opportunity is there.”

In a recent report that looks into how Ireland will reduce its transport emissions by 51% by 2030, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action put forward a number of recommendations. 

Among these, was that government should review all current and future road projects to assess if funding should be reallocated towards more sustainable modes of travel. 

A review of 2018’s National Development Plan (NDP) is also under way, with an updated plan expected to be published after the summer recess, along with the government’s Climate Action Plan 2021.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport told The Journal that this review will look at all proposed road building projects under the current 10 National Strategic Outcomes (NSOs), one of which is focused on decarbonisation. 

However, the Programme for Government also contains a line that this review will “not frustrate or delay existing projects”.

Recently, while debating the climate bill in the Seanad, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan signalled a move away from larger motorway building projects, towards more targeted, smaller-scale roads.

“As for the key changes, in respect of roads we will be switching to large numbers of bypasses, because that helps us on the climate front,” Ryan said. 

“The more bypasses of towns we have, the more those towns can revive.”

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Building bypasses

Statements like this, as well as the recently published six route options, have locals in Tipperary Town hopeful that they will finally be getting a bypass built. Campaigners also hope that the bypass will be prioritised in the new NDP and built first as part of the greater N24 Cahir to Limerick Junction project.

“From a green agenda, it seems to fit into that whole idea of building smaller bypasses than building big, big motorways,” says Anne-Marie Ryan.

“Of course we’re aware that there is a connectivity issue, and that you do need to have good road infrastructure in this part of rural Ireland because our rail lines are underdeveloped.

“But we do need to prioritise the section around Tipp Town, very much so.”

The bypass, then, is seen as a road project likely to get the go-ahead after being reviewed, as it conforms with the government’s plans. However, there are already concerns from some quarters that the wider N24 project won’t go ahead.

Labour Party leader and Tipperary TD Alan Kelly told Taoiseach Michéal Martin in the Dáil earlier this month that there was “deep concern” that the wider N24 project would be “jettisoned” in favour of a “small bypass” for Tipperary town. 

Martin said he was aware of the importance of the N24 and would relay that to the ministers

Road to nowhere

Kelly’s comments highlight the often fraught relationship between national planning objectives and local issues and concerns. Each of the 38 major road projects listed by TII comes with its own particular problems, has numerous competing stakeholders, and is the subject of huge debate. 

Bypasses of towns choked with traffic, primary roads with significant fatality rates in desperate need of repair, and new motorways that have been promised for decades, all feature in the plans. Often, the local need and the national priority come into sharp conflict.

Minister Ryan experienced this first-hand earlier this year when he didn’t sign off on a section of the Coonagh Knockalisheen road project in Limerick. The road plans to connect Moyross – a highly disadvantaged area in north Limerick City – with the rest of the northside and is a key part of the Limerick Regeneration Plan.

Ryan wanted to review the project to add a light rail system, which would be more environmentally sustainable and provide more connectivity for the area. This was in the context of the upcoming review of the NDP.

However, he was met with fierce local resistance to any delay. Government and opposition TDs and campaign groups lobbied the minister to sign off on the road, and he complied. Ryan said improved cycling infrastructure and pedestrian access could be developed alongside the road.

Paddy Flannery, Director of the Moyross Community Centre, was one of those who campaigned strongly to have the road built:

“The problem in Ireland when you start to talk about creating plans, it’s ’20 years from now and we’ll have ourselves a lovely plan’ and then they won’t have a bus to go on the plan,” he says.

“In fairness common sense prevailed there and the road is well under way now, thanks be to God.”

Ciarán Ferrie says there were “particular issues at play in Moyross on what happened there”.

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“The community in Moyross have been essentially abandoned for years and there’s a lot of resentment in the way they’ve been building plan after plan which just haven’t come to fruition.”

However, Ferrie believes there were many other things that could have been done for the community to help it, rather than building another road. 

These include the dismantling of the large wall that surrounds the community, cutting it off from the rest of the estates of north Limerick.

“The rationale for new roads is about accessibility and connectivity,” says Ferrie.

“But what it is actually doing is it’s opening up more lands for development which is actually then perpetuating this kind of car dependent urban sprawl”, which then creates “further car dependency”.

Like with Moyross and Tipperary, each particular road project comes weighed down with its own local issues. 

In Galway, for example, there is heated debate over whether the proposed N6 Galway City Ring Road – currently awaiting approval from An Bord Pleanála – should be built at all.

As a recent Noteworthy investigation points out, the road has been in the pipeline for decades to deal with the significant traffic congestion coming in and out of the city. But there are local objections to the plan, which will see 54 houses bought under Compulsory Purchase Orders.

Ciarán Ferrie and other experts who have analysed the plans believe that it may not even ease congestion in the city.

“I think there’s a growing realisation in Galway that building more roads isn’t the solution to congestion,” he says.

“We continue to build more roads and widen more roads and the congestion doesn’t improve the traffic, it just fills the extra space that’s created.”

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The road forward 

Ferrie states that a new way of carrying out a cost-benefit analysis of each road project is needed going forward, one that moves away from only looking at reducing the length of journeys and towards the long-term environmental viability of each project.

“We need to change the way that we measure transport projects and the viability of transport projects,” says Ferrie.

“I think if we do that it will change the way that we approach the delivery of transport.”

Other countries can give an indication of how a reduction in car and road dependency might be achieved. In Wales, for example, the government recently put a halt on all new road building projects while a review was carried out. 

“We need a shift away from spending money on projects that encourage more people to drive, and spend more money on maintaining our roads and investing in real alternatives that give people a meaningful choice,” deputy minister for climate change told the Welsh parliament last month. 

There are no signs that the government here is planning a similar move. When asked by The Journal, a spokesperson for the Department of Transport said that a review of the NDP was being carried out, which is due to be published later this year.

“The Programme For Government sets out a very clear commitment to prioritise sustainable transport. 20% of the capital budget for transport is to be spent on walking and cycling over the lifetime of the government,” the spokesperson said.

They stated that the government was committed to the 2:1 ratio of spending on public transport infrastructure and new roads, which will be maintained in each Budget.

Back in Tipperary town, Anne Marie Ryan hopes that a bypass might be signed off on and completed within the next 10 years to divert traffic from the town centre. Only then, she says, can the town revitalise itself, with infrastructure like cycling paths becoming possible.

“We don’t have cycle lanes or good active travel measures in the town. Because we can’t develop segregated cycle lanes,” she says.

“Right now if you wanted to cycle into Tipperary Town, you’re sharing the road with HGVs and bikes and cars.

“I live four kilometres outside the town. I would quite happily cycle to town if it was safe. But it’s not safe,” she says. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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