A decade-long lack of investment in major roads projects has caused a major traffic jam in Cork — literally and figuratively.
Any road user in Cork lately will have been met with large volumes of traffic and tailbacks. Accidents are a daily occurrence and frustrated motorists claim the current infrastructure is not fit-for-purpose.
Others argue that the current situation highlights a need for investment in other areas, such as rail, to get people out of cars but few will argue that the current infrastructure is sufficient.
In the coming decades, the population of the Cork region is expected to increase, too, bringing with it further pressure on existing infrastructure.
But, in a time when climate focus is becoming more pronounced, is investment in roads the wise move long-term?
There is a school of thought that says more roads will simply lead to more traffic and that money would be better spent on rail and light rail.
However, the counter is that these long-awaited projects — Dunkettle, Cork-Limerick, Ringaskiddy, Cork-Kerry — are crucial in unlocking the economic potential for the broader region.
Several of these projects are included in the Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy (CMATS), which maps out the long-term transport plan for the Cork region.
It does not just focus on roads — footpaths, greenways, cycle lanes and rail upgrades are on the cards too — but it notes that the likes of the M28, the M20 and Dunkettle are key elements for the region.
Largely, the political will appears to be there to complete these projects, too.
The CMATS plan was a Fine Gael initiative initially and Fianna Fáil, for the most part, have been vocal in backing some of the elements.
Sinn Féin’s election manifesto proposed funding the CMATS, including light rail. It also mentions completing the Cork-Limerick motorway.
There is some disagreement about these schemes, though.
UCC economist Dr Frank Crowley said that they will cause more urban sprawl and that public transport must be prioritised.
The Green Party, which could potentially be crucial in government formation, has also spoken about the need to prioritise rail and other public transport initiatives.
Party leader Éamon Ryan, pictured left, was heavily criticised during the general election for suggesting that the Cork-Limerick motorway would “make no sense”, while party members in Cork have stressed the importance of light rail and public transport solutions ahead of private transport.
While the CMATS, which was published in 2019, included plans for a light-rail system, construction isn’t estimated to begin until after 2031, some time after most of the roads projects proposed are due to be completed.
While many business interest groups, including the Cork Chamber, have put their support behind public transport and cycle infrastructure, they have also backed the development of major roads infrastructure. Its election manifesto said: “Key strategic transport corridors, such as the Dunkettle Interchange, the M20 Cork-Limerick motorway and Northern Ring Road, the M28 Cork-Ringaskiddy Road, the N22 Cork-Kerry Road have all been committed to in the National Development Plan and must be delivered with urgency.”
The Chamber identifies Cork’s future as “a city region that is fit for today and built for the future”, with connectivity such as this cited as a priority.
There is, largely, a drive to complete many of these projects, even if there is disagreement about some of the elements. This, though, is what has frustrated so many: if most people are on the same page, why are these projects delayed, re-routed and lacking in funding?
Creating an Atlantic corridor between Cork and Limerick
The €1.2bn Cork-Limerick motorway took a major step forward in mid-February when Transport Infrastructure Ireland confirmed the route where development will take place.
The project will involve an upgrade of the existing N20, via Mallow and Charleville.
This option was chosen ahead of an alternative proposal to take a spur off the existing M8 at Mitchelstown and building a motorway through east Limerick.
The National Development Plan (NDP) sets out that the N/M20 Cork to Limerick scheme would provide better connectivity between Ireland’s second and third largest cities, Cork and Limerick.
It would improve the quality of the transport network, addressing safety issues associated with the existing N20 route and provide for safer and more efficient journey times.
The project is a key element in Project Ireland 2040, the Government’s long-term overarching strategy to make Ireland a better country for all of its people.
These latest developments come 10 years after the scheme looked set to proceed previously. In 2010, the scheme was submitted to An Bord Pleanála for statutory planning approval having cleared planning and design hurdles. It was shelved due to the economic downturn in 2011.
Despite this setback, though, the issue remained high on the agenda for elected representatives in the decade since.
It was a hot topic in the recent general election campaign, with a war of words erupting between Fine Gael and Green Party members about the scheme.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said that the development would “make no sense” and insisted upgrading the rail network was a better alternative to improve transport in the south and south-west of Ireland.
There was a backlash, with Fine Gael senator Kieran O’Donnell hitting back, claiming that the Green Party leader was showing “a distinct lack of understanding” of what was required in the area.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney also backed the project, claiming that cutting the journey times would help to create “a counter-balance to Dublin in the south and south-west”.
Announcing the preferred route, it was confirmed the N/M20 project team had spent a year of work based on the Public Spending Code requirements, which requires consideration of all potential options, including bus and rail alternatives.
That work informed their choice of route which will provide the highest journey time savings between Cork and Limerick, has the potential to save the greatest number of road-based collisions, accidents and fatalities, across the network, and provides the highest level of traffic relief to towns and villages.
Public consultation will take place in the latter part of this year, with the preferred option within the broad N20 corridor identified soon after.
Ring road delay ‘major blow’
In January 2020, it was confirmed by the Department of Transport that the long-awaited Northern Ring Road would not be built until after 2027.
It was a major blow to the northside of Cork city.
A report issued by the Department of Public Expenditure, titled ‘Prospects: Ireland’s Pipeline of Major Infrastructure Projects,’ has a page on the N20 Cork-to-Limerick road upgrade, which makes reference to the Northern Ring Road.
The report stated: “The solution for the N20 corridor will be identified through the appraisal process by the development of a business case for the scheme.
“This process will examine the inclusion of the Cork North Ring Road, linking the N20 to Dunkettle.”
However, the Department of Transport clarified that Cork won’t have a Northern Ring Road until after 2027.
In a statement, they said the Northern Ring Road remained a long-term aim.
“The National Development Plan sets out the need to upgrade the road linking Limerick to Cork.
“When the new road reaches Cork, it will need a suitable docking point and it is envisaged that, in the longer term, that docking point would be where it would meet the Cork North Ring Road.
“The N20 project will examine how that should be planned for. However, in the shorter term, the new N20/M20 will have to tie into the existing road infrastructure in Cork North City.
“The Cork North Ring Road will not be delivered as part of the new N20 Limerick-to-Cork road in the period of the National Development Plan (2018 to 2027).
“Any delivery of part or all of the Cork North Ring Road would be after 2027.”
The Cork Northern Ring Road has been in the pipeline for 15 years.
Cork City Council has repeatedly included the Northern Ring Road in its capital cost applications, but the Government has not prioritised its delivery.
The first designs for the road were drawn up in 2004 and were broken into three phases.
Phase one proposed linking up the N22 Ballincollig bypass with the N20 Mallow Road, while phase two included a link to the N20 from the existing North Ring Road. Phase three would see the Northern Ring linked to the N8 Dublin Road.
In 2007, the National Road Authority (now Transport Infrastructure Ireland) announced a €500m route for the Northern Ring, with 10km of dual carriageway from Ballincollig to Carrigrohane, which would join up with the N20.
Phase three of this has been included in the Government’s capital plans, but this will only unlock the eastern side of Cork’s transport ring. The western corridor, from Glanmire to Ballincollig’s Poulavone roundabout, is likely to remain without a natural link for several years to come.
The sole prohibitive issue, it appears, is the cost of the project.
A complete Northern Ring Road would join the M8 from the toll booth at Watergrasshill to the Poulavone Roundabout, in Ballincollig, and the N22.
It remains a hot topic politically, with local politicians from all sides putting their weight behind it.
The recent election of Thomas Gould, a Sinn Féin representative from Knocknaheeny, who has pushed for the road for years, could add further pressure to it, if the party gets into government.
Criticism over delays for Dunkettle Interchange
The Dunkettle Interchange project is currently being re-tendered after being delayed by 12 months last August.
The delay was viewed as a major setback at the time for a project deemed crucial for the entire region.
The development involves the reconfiguration of the existing Dunkettle Interchange to a free-flowing interchange.
The project includes road links between the N8, the N25 and the N40 and links to the R623 in Little Island and Burys Bridge in Dunkettle; one grade-separated junction arrangement; four roundabouts; 52 structures of various forms; several culverts; Intelligent Transport Systems; and pedestrian and cyclist facilities.
The design phase (stage 1) of the contract was awarded in May 2018. It was decided to revert to the market in September 2019 for the main works and tenders are expected to be returned in summer 2020.
The project was originally budgeted to cost in the region of €100 million when it was announced almost ten years ago but estimates have soared since. Last summer, when the delays first came to light, it was estimated that it could cost closer to €170m, and even higher figures have been floated since.
Transport Infrastructure Ireland cited “worse-than-anticipated ground conditions and the consequent increase in scope” as the reason it will go back to the market to find a contractor to take on the construction stage of the process.
It said the funds to complete the project have been ringfenced and the value of the contract will be confirmed once the tendering process is complete.
The interchange is currently used by 950,000 vehicles daily and, depending on the completion of other roads projects in the region, this figure could increase even more in the coming years.
The current proposed upgrade will result in the removal of the current signalised system operating on a roundabout on the northern exit of the Jack Lynch Tunnel, is designed to cater for future growth up to 2050. It is now anticipated the contract will be awarded in 2020, with sectional openings scheduled to take place in 2022, with full completion in 2023.
Speaking at the time of the delays emerging, Cork Chamber hit out at the delay, describing it as “completely unacceptable” and said people would be sceptical of the new completion date given the previously missed deadline.
They said the failure to deliver the Dunkettle Iinterchange on schedule would have a knock-on effect on other strategic infrastructure projects such as the M28 access to the Port of Cork in Ringaskiddy where the port is planning a major €80m container terminal.
In January of this year, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said the Government is “absolutely committed” to delivering the project, despite the delays.
“We wanted to ensure that we could get the best value for the delivery of what I know is a really important project with the county and city of Cork,” he said at the time.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said that Cork “is losing out as a result of this Government’s complete mismanagement of capital projects” and the latest delay “raises serious questions about the way this process has been handled”.
Cork-Ringaskiddy motorway expected to be complete by 2027
The construction of the M28 Cork-Ringaskiddy motorway is currently scheduled for a 2027 completion date if the project progresses as planned.
However, it has been hit by a number of delays over the years and more of these would not be a surprise for a scheme considered crucial in many respects with regards to regional development.
The motorway is viewed as critical to unlocking the potential of the Port of Cork in Ringaskiddy, supporting the expanding pharmaceutical industry in the area and enabling the Port to move out of their land in Tivoli, Cork city, which would then be used to develop housing.
However, before it gets to the stage of construction, there are approximately three years of advance works and diversions to complete, as well as a number of Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) for land in the area.
The M28 Cork to Ringaskiddy Project is the upgrade of approximately 12.5km of the N28 from the N40 South Ring Road, at Bloomfield Interchange, to Ringaskiddy.
Transport Infrastructure Ireland is the funding authority for this project and the project has been included in the government’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment Plan 2016 – 2021.
The N28 corridor itself is part of the Trans-European Transport Network, accessing the Tier 1 Port at Ringaskiddy. This requires that the Port is served by a high-quality road (either a motorway or express road), designed and built for motor traffic.
The existing N28 is predominantly a single carriageway road and suffers from significant congestion. The road does not have the capacity to cater for current traffic volumes at peak times or future expected increases in traffic.
The planning application for the M28 Cork to Ringaskiddy Project was lodged to An Bord Pleanála in May 2017. An Bord Pleanála approved the planning application with modifications in June 2018.
This was challenged by the M28 Steering Group — which claims to represent some 10,000 residents in Rochestown, Douglas and Mount Oval in opposition to the scheme — in the High Court, but this was thrown out in December 2019.
In January, it was reported that the M28 Steering Group was reconsidering launching another challenge. The group had claimed the decision to approve the road was flawed on grounds including that the application for permission to build the road was premature, incomplete and did not meet both domestic and European law requirements.
However, Mr Justice Michael MacGrath ruled the court was not convinced the project was not properly assessed before the decision was made. According to the ‘Investment Projects and Programmes Tracker’ published by the Department of Public Expenditure in January, the N28 project was currently at stage 3 of 6 — the final business case — with the construction estimated to be completed in 2027.
Approval for Macroom/Baile Mhúirne bypass following 20-year wait
The €280m upgrade of the N22 Cork-Kerry road, which includes the Macroom bypass, was approved by Cabinet in October 2019.
The vast road project had been on the cards for some 20 years.
It includes the construction of 22km of dual carriageway from Coolcower, east of Macroom, to include a northern bypass of Macroom town, continuing west to tie in to the existing N22 near the Cork-Kerry boundary.
The new road will also bypass the villages of Baile Mhic Íre and Baile Mhúirne, giving road-users an alternative to the infamous Baile Mhúirne bends.
The Cabinet approval meant Cork County Council was free to award a contract for the scheme, which is designed to improve road safety and journey times between Cork and Kerry. The contract was awarded to a joint venture of Jons Civil Engineering Company Ltd and John Cradock Ltd.
It came eight years after An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the scheme.
Planning documents, which are now almost a decade old, predicted that by 2027, the Macroom bypass would handle around 11,200 vehicles a day to the west of Macroom, and between 9,500 and 11,500 vehicles per day on the bypassed section in Macroom.
The full route is used by 14,000 vehicles daily, with this figure expected to increase to more than 20,000 when work is complete.
Transport Infrastructure Ireland said the bypass alone will lead to savings in travel times of between 11 and 17 minutes, depending on the start and end location of the journey.
The road will be built through challenging terrain, from hilly, remote land with rocky outcrops at the western end, to low-lying pasture lands to the east of Macroom.
It will cross a land-locked section of the Inniscarra reservoir to the south-east of the town.
Engineers have spent the last two years on a range of preparatory works to prime the route corridor for construction, including extensive ground investigation works, archaeological excavations, and the removal and relocation of high- voltage overhead power lines.
As part of the road project, some 18 road bridges (under and over bridges), 24 accommodation (under/over bridge) structures and a number of culvert structures are to be constructed.
Once construction work starts, it is expected it will take three and a half years to complete.
However, it is understood that the Macroom bypass section will be built and opened before the western section is completed.
The project, as per a report from the Department of Public Expenditure, is in phase four of development — the implementation and construction phase — and is on course for a 2023 finish.
That report puts it in a cost range of €250m to €500m.