If there’s anything guaranteed to start a fight between regional and capital cities, it’s a proposal — or even just talk about a proposal — for a major capital expenditure development, ideally involving railways and aviation. So Transport Minister Shane Ross will not be surprised by the speedy and largely negative reactions to the report on the future needs of Dublin, Cork, and Shannon he shared with his Cabinet colleagues this week. While there’s little in the review by Oxford Economics to bring cheer to managers and workers at Cork and Shannon, Dublin is promised — or perhaps that should be threatened with — the possibility of a third terminal to handle annual passenger numbers forecast to rise to 61m a year by 2050. It has a target date for being built of around 2030.
That might seem – because it is – a long, long way down the line, but Mr Ross has decided that a decision on a third terminal, possibly funded privately, for Dublin will be made in the early months of next year, which leaves scarcely any time for regional authorities and agencies to study the proposals, interrogate the forecasts on which they are premised, and, if necessary, table alternatives that can endure thorough investigation.
There will undoubtedly be the need to look closely at the work that went into the report’s passenger number forecasts — more than doubling from 29.5m currently — for Dublin. It’s been said that the emergence of US protectionism and Brexit have been factored in, but the latter at least must be mere guesswork until we know what, if any, arrangements for EU-UK air routes we will have after March 29 next. Civil engineers, accountants, economists, and even transport ministers do not need to be reminded that major capital projects can be notoriously risky, prone as they are to eye-watering cost overruns, resistance by environmental lobbies, and unduly optimistic business cases.
There will unquestionably be powerful arguments — both economic and environmental — for switching the focus of Ireland’s airport growth to Cork and Shannon and away from Dublin, unless it’s the Government’s intention to see the capital become a megalopolis hideous for residents and less than captivating for tourists. Some of them have been outlined already by Limerick Chamber of Commerce. It has described Dublin Airport as a “wrecking ball” getting in the way of balanced regional development and has warned that further expansion at Dublin will handicap the prospects for investment in growth in Cork and Shannon.
Mr Ross will have his work cut out in trying to sell this proposal to the country, and in explaining why a decision has to be made so hastily. DAA (formerly the Dublin Airport Authority and also the owner of Cork Airport) says a third Dublin terminal is not high on its list of priorities. Ryanair and Aer Lingus have been similarly sceptical. The industry will want to know how the proposition squares with the Government’s National Aviation Policy, which was adopted only three years ago and which, rightly, talks up Cork Airport’s unique position as a gateway to each of the country’s two main holiday regions.
Perhaps his plan is to put the idea on the runway to see if it takes off. There are sound reasons for hoping it doesn’t.