Documents seen by the Irish Examiner show the head of the National Roads Authority warned the Department of Transport last year that immediate approval was needed to reactivate the M20 proposal if the motorway was to be completed by 2030.
Although not stated expressly, it was also intimated to transport officials that the failure to progress the development of the M20 would result in avoidable road deaths over future years.
“The road will become increasingly congested with time and it is already the scene of many accidents every year, with fatalities and serious injuries,” the former NRA chief executive Fred Barry said in November 2014, when he sought permission from Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe to reactivate the scheme.
It followed the decision in 2011 by Mr Donohoe’s predecessor, Leo Varadkar, to instruct the NRA to withdraw its application to An Bord Pleanála for the M20 because the economic downturn meant capital funding for the estimated €720m cost of the project was unavailable.
Mr Varadkar was concerned that any further work on the project at that stage would have exposed the NRA to claims of up to €100m arising from obligations to complete compulsory purchase orders on land along the route.
The NRA (now known as Transport Infrastructure Ireland or TII) had already spent €15m on the planning application for the M20.
“As you are aware it takes a decade or more to bring a major road scheme through planning to the point where it is opened to traffic. The earliest by which an upgrade of the N20 could now be delivered is probably 2024.
“In practice, given normal funding constraints, the road will probably be built in sections, which suggests that if the scheme is reactivated now the road might be opened to traffic in sections in the 2024-2030 period,” Mr Barry told transport officials last year. He emphasised the route’s national and European policy importance, and the “high cost of inaction”.
Although the M20 remains the top priority of TII for major new road projects, the Government has ruled out making funding available for it because of ongoing financial constraints. The updated cost of the M20 is now €800m.
Mr Barry was informed in January 2015 that “in the absence of a more comprehensive consideration of the medium-longer term national road capacity requirements, it would be premature to commit substantial resources to the M20 for now.”
A senior transport source said Mr Barry had strongly argued last year that there was never a better time to reactivate the project as the price of land along the route had fallen sharply since original plans were drawn up.
“The Department of Transport was essentially being told the cost of the M20 was never going to be lower than if it reactivated the project in late 2014 or early 2015,” the source explained.
Asked recently about the decision not to approve the motorway, Mr Donohoe said it had not been possible to progress a range of worthwhile projects and the main focus had to be on the maintenance and repair of existing roads. However, he promised to examine if there was any possibility of alleviating “some of the bottlenecks” on the existing N20.