Ghosts of past hampering fresh progress

Improving our infrastructure remains a huge challenge. Failing to re-evaluate the now discredited idea of decentralisation and jobs dispersion is adding to it, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

Ghosts of past hampering fresh progress

Last week, Engineers Ireland unveiled its latest annual State of Ireland report, in effect, a capital projects wish list.

The focus, this year, is on transport and communications.

The wish list, of course, contains some projects that will be familiar — Metro North, the Dublin (part) underground rail project; the Dart extension and the long-awaited M20 motorway connecting Cork with Limerick.

The document contains much that is positive, including a strong sense of environmental commitment and a recognition that we are entering a period of social technological transformation in transport.

Drivers would be incentivised to purchase electric vehicles while much more charging points would be placed along our roads.

A big change is also coming — faster than we might have imagined — in the form of self-drive cars. Investment in transport dipped from a peak of €3.5bn in 2008 to just €1bn, last year.

The system is “creaking at the seams”, with average travel times in Dublin rising from 23.4 minutes in 2013 to almost 25 minutes in 2015. Further increases have been recorded since then.

There is a proven link between economic activity and road congestion. Our non-primary roads are frequently in rag order. Engineers Ireland believes that investment in the 5,300-mile national network must be raised from €40m to €140m a year.

Much more could be done, of course, to redress the economic balance between rural and urban Ireland if improved roads are not merely to be used to funnel people into our crowded cities. The speedy implementation of digital strategies is surely of paramount importance.

To date, official Ireland has fallen down on the job in large part.

A parallel is drawn, in the report, between the development of our broadband services and the rollout of the rural electrification scheme in post-war Ireland.

Businesses in the countryside need to be put on an even footing through direct input from the State.

If this were to happen, we could witness an entrepreneurial rebirth, particularly if such investment was accompanied by financial incentives.

Property prices across much of the country are a fraction of that in Greater Dublin. Wages, too, are lower.

We are currently neglecting what could be an important source of competitive advantage.

The great flaw in the Engineers’ report is that it amounts to a list of pet projects. Where are the detailed costings and the listing of priorities?

The body has 23,000 members drawn from right across the spectrum from public to private. Inevitably, many competing interests must be balanced, and varying points of views accommodated.

Kieran Feighan, the body’s new president does, however, provide food for thought in an interview with the Irish Examiner.

Outside the major cities, the emphasis should be on roads, he says. Investment must be made with the National Primary framework in mind.

This is being unveiled against a background where an increase in the country’s population of one million or more by 2035 is being predicted. Duplication of investment must be avoided. An example, here, is the upgrading of rail lines close to the sites of major motorways.

While fast-track planning measures are now in place, he believes that challenges remain, instancing the long delays that now threaten the Apple data centre investment in Athenry.

“The project was cleared by the Planning Board, yet was appealed to the Courts. Much more rapid progress was experienced in Denmark.” He points to even longer delays in the case of the Galway City Outer Bypass where an appeal has been brought to the European Court. “It would be helpful if we tighten up on the use of such appeals. This has been done in other countries.”

We have to balance the right of the individual against the needs and rights of the population as a whole, he suggests.

Regional rebalancing is viewed as a critical goal. Mr Feighan believes that completion of the Cork-Limerick motorway, combined with an upgraded system up to the Mayo border and improvements between Cork and Waterford, would result in a ‘dynamic Atlantic way.’

“You can then grow a mass of industry that allows people to commute between towns along the way. The key is to get commuting time down to one hour or less.”

The other key goal is to develop a series of cities with populations of at least 100,000 each, at which point they begin to achieve real viability.

“I would see decent broadband as being as important as electricity and water.”

In his view, investment in transport must go hand-in-hand with investment in high-grade communications. In this regard, he points to the emergence of intelligent transport systems which cannot operate at full capacity without accompanying investment in broadband.

The spread of smart, self-drive vehicles would also permit the much more intense use of congested motorways such as the M50.

Engineers Ireland wanders into controversy by endorsing an Eastern Bypass for Dublin alongside its backing for Metro North and the Dart underground, projects which could disrupt the capital for many years while costing billions.

Mr Feighan considers the Eastern Bypass to be a continuation of the Dublin port tunnel, one that would pull significant traffic away from the M50. He also insists Metro North could pay for itself with the growth in commercial activity based around the airport and beyond allowing for two-way peak traffic flows.

But could some of this investment be rendered unnecessary by a decision to relocate large numbers of public servants to say the Limerick region?

The McCreevy plan, unveiled in 2003, involving the indiscriminate scattering of public service jobs across Ireland, has discredited the whole idea of decentralisation and dispersion. This is a shame. As we attempt to plan for a longer term future with regionally balanced development, perhaps it is time to revisit this whole idea.

It surely makes little sense to concentrate so much activity in that part of the country where the cost of living and of accommodation in particular, is highest.

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