by Frank Schnittger
Fri Jul 15th, 2011 at 03:52:28 AM EST
In Driving a dual carriageway through my home I documented the extraordinary process by which planning officials proposed to build a motorway standard road from the outskirts of Dublin to Hollywood - a village with a few hundred dispersed inhabitants, two pubs and no shop. At a personal level, I was obviously not happy that one of the proposed alternative routes was to go right through my home, and two others were due to cut my brother-in-law's dairy farm in half. But the bigger problem was that I could see no logic in building the road in the first place.
The planning team have now produced their Public Consultation Stage 2 Route Corridor Options Drawings and have invited public comment on them. The good news is that none of the new proposed alternative routes now impact as much on the scenic Poulaphouca reservoir Special Protection Area (and also effect my own home and my brother-in-Law's farm much less drastically). Perhaps the arguments in my submission to the Council (based on my diary) had an impact after all - despite my misgivings about the process.
However the bad news is that the planners have still not produced any cost benefit or environmental impact study for the project as a whole - on the grounds that these will vary depending on the final route chosen. This is of course true at the marginal cost level. My big problem is that a lot of public resources are being expended on designing a route when I can see no sustainable cost benefit for the project regardless of the final route chosen. Some will doubtless be marginally less expensive or deleterious for the environment than others, but where are the benefits?
The planning team accept that traffic on the route has continued to decline - partly as a consequence of the economic down turn - and also that oil prices are only going to up in the longer term - putting a premium on public and more efficient means of personal and goods transport. The expansion of Blessington as a commuter town has halted, and many of the gravel quarries in the area which provide much of the local commercial traffic are coming close to the end of their working lives.
There are issues with road safety at specific junctions, but none which would require the building of a completely new road. Road traffic deaths in Ireland have halved in recent years, despite a huge increase in traffic volumes, and Dublin has the best record of reducing traffic related deaths within the EU in recent years. There were 212 road deaths in all of Ireland in 2010 compared to 415 in 2000 and a peak of 640 in 1972. There is no room for complacency, of course, and every effort should be made to address specific black spots. However there is no evidence that the N81 from Dublin to Blessington is particularly unsafe in this regard.
Interestingly, having previously asserted that their brief was confined to designing a completely new route, the current planning team (which is much changed since last year) have now included the possibility of upgrading the existing road as one of their route selection options. This is undoubtedly the best option for much of the route between Brittas and Blessington, although it must be conceded that there is no good option for improving the route between Tallaght (Jobstown) and Brittas because of the configuration of the hills and the steep gradients involved.
The other problem area is Blessington itself, as the town nestles between the scenic area of Glen Ding (with its Viking fort) and the Poulaphouca reservoir, and there is little room to accommodate a major road within those parameters. The obvious solution is to upgrade the currently very under-utilized inner relief road and extend it both north and south onto the N81 on the outskirts of the town . Unfortunately the planners seem fixated on creating a motorway standard road which is not possible within that confined area despite the fact that the traffic volumes (6,000 vehicles per day south of Blessington) in no way justify a motorway standard road.
As a consequence they are forced to propose building a very large loop around the town (PDF alert) - with two options either side of Glen Ding - which will detract from that scenic area and add considerably to the cost and the overall distance which has to be travelled. In fact such a convoluted route will ensure that the road is of no benefit to Blessington area residents who will be much better off simply using the existing N81. Its primary benefit will therefore be for those travelling up from Baltinglass (Pop. 2,000, distance 31 KM) and Tullow (Pop. 3,000, distance 50KM) neither of which are exactly large metropolitan areas or growth centres in terms of the National Spatial Strategy. In fact Tullow is already much better served by the M9 motorway if you do want to get from there to Dublin in a hurry.
So why are we in the process of planning such a useless route to a very sparsely populated area at a time of great national austerity? The main reason is probably simply one of bureaucratic inertia. Someone decided, way back in the Celtic Tiger era, that all national routes should be upgraded to motorway standard. At a time of booming population, economic, and traffic growth, that might even have made sense in a lot of instances. However that motorway network is now largely completed and we are now left with the most marginal of remaining non-upgraded routes with the most tenuous of economic justifications. Planning departments have to justify their continued existence however, and thus the most marginal of projects are kept on life support.
That does not mean, however, that there is no chance of this project proceeding to the construction stage. Sooner or later the EU and the Irish government will realise that continuing austerity programmes just lead to a divider effect (the opposite of the multiplier effect) and suddenly there may be a rush of European Investment Bank funded "shovel ready" projects designed to try and revive the corpse of the Irish economy. If the N81 upgrade project succeeds in surviving long enough to make it onto that list of shovel ready projects, it may end up being approved on the Keynesian principle that digging holes and filling them up again can help revive an ailing economy.
Unfortunately all talk of long term strategic planning and environmental impacts will then be banished in the rush to try and provide some short term employment. I will not reiterate here the many reasons I listed as to why this scheme makes no sense at all in my original submission. At least these phase 2 route selection proposals avoid some of the more egregiously damaging aspects of the project, particularly around the scenic areas of the Poulaphouca lake.
But why do parameters set in 1998 still have to determine everything we do now? By all means develop a new Tallaght to Brittas route, fix the difficult junctions between Brittas and Blessington, and extend and enhance the existing Blessington inner relief road into something more useful for everyone concerned. But a Motorway to Nowhere should not be on anyone's agenda. It is a solution in search of a problem.