Devastating loss of family on our roads highlights urgency

Transport Infrastructure Ireland has 55 roads projects in 23 counties but securing funding for them is just part of the process in ensuring the proposals move from the planning stage to work beginning on the ground, writes Caroline O’Doherty.

Devastating loss of family on our roads highlights urgency

The crash that devastated the Wilson family on September 11 stunned even those who predicted that something so awful was bound to happen.

Marcella Wilson, a mother of four from Belmullet, Co Mayo; her youngest son, Sean, aged seven, and his grandmother and Marcella’s mother, Mary Ann, were all killed when their car collided with a lorry after they pulled out on to the N17 near Claremorris on their way to a hospital appointment.

Locals who witnessed the aftermath spoke with shock and sorrow of the heartbreaking scene.

And then they added with despair that the junction was known to be deadly, the location of many minor collisions and near misses and a tragedy waiting to happen.

So why wasn’t anything done about it?

The sad and frustrating truth is that the junction was officially recognised as hazardous and it is due to be rendered redundant by a major upgrading of the section of the N17 that runs between Claremorris and Tuam.

However, that project, for which extensive preparations have been made, sits on a list compiled by Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) of works around the country that are deemed ‘suspended’.

Currently 55 projects in 23 counties are on the list — the number has varied little in recent years and many of those included feature repeatedly.

They range from roundabouts, realignments and local relief roads to long stretches of dual carriageway — projects costed at anything from tens of thousands of euro to many millions.

At the moment there is also a motorway project — the M20 Cork-Limerick route which the Taoiseach announced last Friday would be included in the new national Capital Investment Plan to be published next month — so while no funding has been allocated for it just yet, it appear its suspension has been suspended.

The rest are all sections of national primary and secondary routes, many of them blighted with accident blackspots or notorious for congestion.

National roads make up just 5,300km of the 97,000km of roads in Ireland — fewer than 6% of the total network — yet they carry 45% of the nation’s traffic so their significance far outstrips their size.

They are beyond the scope of local authorities to fund. Councils have enough on their plate trying to maintain local and regional roads to an acceptable standard. Therefore, they fall under the remit of TTII, formerly the National Roads Authority, until the authority and the Railway Procurement Agency were merged to form the new body two years ago.

However, local authorities are more often than not the starting point. It is their staff and the elected members who begin the push for improvement or replacement works, it is they who carry out the analysis, assessment and, where needed, public consultations; it is they who commission designs, apply for planning permission and initiate compulsory purchase orders where necessary.

Usually, TII is looking over its shoulder, guiding the process too, so when all of the plans, all the paperwork and all the hopes arrive, they’re often reviewed and approved without too much dispute. And then, when everyone’s in agreement, they go to await funding.

And they wait and they wait. They are reported locally as having been shelved, mothballed, frozen, or forgotten — the term ‘suspended’ doesn’t quite cover the annoyance felt at local level.

Some attract funding quicker than others, even if they have entered the list later, but suspension can last for years.

The New Ross bypass, designed to clear the biggest bottleneck in Wexford, was first included in a list of desired projects compiled by the NRA in 1998 and the final designs secured planning permission in 2008.

Construction crews finally moved on site in the middle of last year and it is expected to be completed in 2019 — just in time to mark the 21st anniversary of its conception.

Not surprisingly, frustrations on the ground lead to suspicions around how decisions are made about which projects to progress, with the common accusation being that political influence wins the day.

TII communications director Sean O’Neill is well aware of the suspicion and says he understands the frustrations that fuel it.

“Road funding is one of those issues that’s very deep-rooted in the personal local connection,” he says. “You’re talking the safety of people on the local roads where a bad accident lives very long in the memory.

“We have meetings with local authorities and you hear the emotion and the anger. We get it and we don’t doubt how genuine it is. We’re human beings, not robots.”

However, he says decisions are not political.

“I’m working mainly with engineers,” he says. “They approach projects as engineers. They don’t care about political affiliation.”

Safety tops the selection criteria when it comes to deciding which projects should get priority for funding but Mr O’Neill warns there’s a science to safety analysis that demands careful and consistent input from those who use a road most and know it the best.

“Local authorities tell us what their needs are and that is cross-referenced against statistical analysis that we have on road fatalities and injuries and incidents,” he says.

“It is paramount that people understand this: If an incident happens on a road and it’s not recorded and registered with the gardaí and the local authority, we don’t have that information. It is vital that we have the statistical data to back up our decisions.”

The statistics need to be constantly updated, he says, and can explain why a historically hazardous stretch of road appears to be overtaken by other projects.

“As population shifts because say, a new area opens up for development, roads that otherwise wouldn’t have been on our radar regarding incidents and accidents all of a sudden pop up and some of them pop to the top of the charts for want of a better description, so that’s another element that people don’t realise is outside of the political sphere.”

After safety, the next most important criterion is broadly described as ‘efficiency’. Travel time, traffic volumes, bottlenecks, how successfully a road links up with others to create seamless regional interconnectivity — all those aspects are taken into consideration.

Again, vast amount of analysis goes into this aspect of the assessment too — and again, population shifts can mean priority shifts.

What makes decision-making even more difficult is that Transport Infrastructure Ireland has to keep an eye on the future with the population expected to increase by another million by 2040 — and not in an even spread across the country.

Meanwhile, it is hamstrung by the recent past when funding for roads plummeted — by 35% between 2008 and 2016.

Transport Infrastructure Ireland chief executive Michael Nolan has warned repeatedly over the past year, for example, that the resurfacing of national roads needs to happen at a rate of 400km per year just to keep on top of routine maintenance.

Last year, close to 150km was resurfaced, which represents an improvement on previous years but it was still far short of what was required and a serious backlog is building up. Mr Nolan raised the issue again at the Public Accounts Committee last Friday when he warned that resurfacing needed to take place every seven to 12 years, so even those roads that were resurfaced during the recession were coming due for fresh treatment, not to mention the 900km of motorway built between 2000 and 2010.

“It’s okay in the short-term,” said Mr Nolan. “You can deal with underfunding for a few years but when underfunding is persistent, we’ll find ourselves spending maybe €2 in future years to fix what €1 would do today.

“The critical time to intervene is before you lose the skid resistance. When you see potholes, you know you should have intervened two years previously.”

With underfunding such a problem when it comes to routine maintenance, it’s no surprise that the list of larger works in suspension extends to 55. And that’s not the whole story.

There are more than 20 other works currently in a ‘planning’ list, which means TII is helping to fund the planning and preparation of the project so that they can join the suspended list.

Collectively, they represent many billions of euro worth of investment. Meanwhile, last week’s budget set aside just €430m for the national road network in 2018. It will only cover essential resurfacing and maintenance of bridges, signage, lighting, some traffic calming measures, minor safety works and other modest projects.

One bypass would swallow the lot and come back for more, so funding for the larger projects needs to come from central Government funding, borrowing, public private partnerships and so on.

Hopes are on pinned on the new 10-year national Capital Investment Plan due next month that it will come up with ways of boosting the funding pot for roads as well as give the all-important green light, bestowed on the M20 last Friday, to other select projects.

An accusation sometimes levied at TII is that, with funding tight, it prefers to focus on the big projects that attract greater attention — the routes prefixed with M as opposed to N.

Mr O’Neill has a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answer to that.

“If we’re working on a motorway project, there’s a reason for it other than because it’s a great big exciting project,” he says.

“One of the big things about the motorway network is that it has reduced head-on collisions dramatically. And because people start using the motorways, they decrease the amount of hours they spend on less designed roads so it offers a residual benefit from a safety perspective that’s significant. Motorways are seven to eight times safer than the existing under-engineered national road.”

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