Green light for Galway ring road - but roads projects have many more miles to cover

If the Galway ring road is anything to go by, promised road projects in other parts of the country, such as the Cork to Limerick motorway, will certainly remain a case of “we’ll believe it when we see it”, writes Sean Murray
Green light for Galway ring road - but roads projects have many more miles to cover

An artist's impression of part of the Galway City Ring Road proposal. It is expected the main construction phase would take three years to complete.

The Government’s recently published National Development Plan has no fewer than 34 major road projects expected to be advanced in the coming years.

Included among the projects in the plan is the Cork City Northern Transport Project - or the Cork North Ring Road. It is expected to be a “complementary project” to the N/M20 Cork to Limerick project and consultants have been appointed to carry out early appraisal works with the project at a very early stage.

The creation of the north ring road is seen as vital when the M20 is built, as traffic would be funnelled into a bottleneck in Blackpool otherwise.

Also on the Government’s list is the Cork-Limerick road itself. The rationale for this is also clear, planners say. Connectivity between the country’s two largest cities are relatively poor and proponents of the motorway want to change that. 

But concerns at local level over the impact on the environment, as well as cutting through existing land and businesses, have meant it has taken years to progress. First mooted in the late-1990s it is a cautionary tale of why the promised road that’ll make a huge difference to local connectivity, traffic, or otherwise should be taken with a pinch of salt.

As this paper reported in November, those watching and waiting for a motorway linking Cork and Limerick adopted a sense of “we’ll believe it when we see it” when it was included in the road network proposals.

Another road on the Government’s National Development Plan, again first mooted in the 1990s, took a huge step forward this week and its own potted history paints another cautionary tale while also raising questions about how the coalition’s climate action pledges can marry with such major road projects.

The Galway City Ring Road 

Several decades in the making, An Bord Pleanála this week approved the planning application for the Galway City 18km ring road.

Both Galway councils praised the decision, and said it was “welcome news for the thousands of commuters who travel to Galway on a daily basis for employment, education, medical or other services and who find themselves at a standstill for long periods in traffic congestion”.

As far back as the 1990s, planners were recommending an east-west route to alleviate congestion in the city centre. The first time consultants were appointed to undertake a feasibility study into such a route was in 1999.

Plans were eventually lodged to An Bord Pleanála in December 2006. This would have been a 21km road, more northerly than the now-approved ring road. It would’ve involved a major bridge crossing across the River Corrib.

Map: Galway City Ring Road proposal
Map: Galway City Ring Road proposal

To cut a long story short, a case querying the environmental impact of the road was appealed to the High Court, and then the Supreme Court, and then found its way to Europe.

In 2013, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that the road project couldn’t go ahead because of the potential for lasting and irreparable loss to the natural habitat type that was designated for conservation on the Tonabrocky Bog.

In effect, the project in that form had to be scrapped and plans for an east-west Galway road returned to square one. Although it was back to the drawing board at that stage, both the city and county councils soon got the ball rolling again.

The need for the road was again deemed an essential one, with the aim of relieving pressure on the city, improving access to public transport, and improving connectivity across the region.

What did begin to emerge was that this new route would be an 18km east-west route around Galway city and closer to the city than the original bypass plan that had been rejected.

It would affect about 500 landowners and involve the demolition of 44 houses, even though most were currently inhabited.

Again, the proposals were brought to An Bord Pleanála and a submission formally lodged in October 2018.

Oral hearings were held on the matter on a number of occasions, although these were also delayed due to Covid-19. Just under 80 submissions were made from individuals and families, interest groups, and public representatives.

On Tuesday evening it finally published its decision which gave the green light to the project.

In the inspector's report from An Bord Pleanála, the inspector agreed with the reasoning put forward by Galway County Council for the compulsory purchase of land as part of the plans.

The land acquisition would be “in the public interest and the common good”, the report said. It recommended granting permission with some conditions attached.

One particular line, however, stuck out for many in terms of the environmental impact of the road.

Climate impact

An Bord Pleanála, in its decision, said the proposed road development is “likely to result in a significant negative impact on carbon emissions and climate that will not be fully mitigated”.

Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly had long opposed the road. In October, after the Government published its NDP, she said that this new plan had created a “hefty new list of hoops to jump through”.

In light of the Government’s commitments to climate action, and An Bord Pleanála’s admission that the climate impacts of the road could not be fully mitigated, she described the decision to approve it as “baffling”.

She said building the road was storing up “all kinds of problems for the future” and that it wouldn’t alleviate the pressure on Galway city.

“Most people know we’re heading in a different direction as a country,” she said. “The secret to producing public transport is not to build a new road to put all the cars on, it’s about taking as many people out of cars as possible.” 

How environmental concerns are interpreted by planning bodies in future will be closely watched, as will any legal challenges to such projects that could be based on the Government’s landmark Climate Action Bill.

What happens now?

An eight-week standstill period will now apply for appeals to be made for the Galway ring road. Decisions made by An Bord Pleanála can be appealed in the High Court via Judicial Review.

The local councils said work on advancing the project could be progressed alongside any potential legal challenges to the plan.

It is expected the main construction phase would take three years to complete. This is on top of the 12-18 months expected for further design.

At the same time, legal challenges could still be forthcoming. And then there’s the years to wait before it’s actually built.

While the Galway Ring Road has crossed its largest hurdle to date, it’s not at the finishing line just yet.

And, if this project is anything to go by, the promised road projects in other parts of the country will certainly still remain a case of “we’ll believe it when we see it”.

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