Thursday, 14 January 2016
Topical Issue Debate
Recent heavy rainfall and flooding has been an enormous source of stress in communities throughout the country but, naturally, my concerns must be local. Constituents in Offaly and north Tipperary have raised the issue of structural problems occurring on regional, local and tertiary roads as result of recent downpours. In areas which had been previously neglected the problem has been exacerbated by the recent storms. In some areas filling in potholes would be sufficient, but in other areas local towns and villages have been cut off. For example, the access road to Banagher from Lusmagh in west Offaly has been flooded since the beginning of December. This inconvenience is bad enough for day to day travel, but recently I heard from a bed and breakfast owner who had to cancel her bookings over Christmas because nobody could access the property. She is concerned, naturally, about loss of earnings. She was not flooded but her home was inaccessible.
Lack of access between Shannon Harbour and Banagher meant the local public house suffered a loss of income despite the fact the property was not flooded. There was a lack of access to the village at a very busy time of the year, which was important for the business. These are local roads which will require considerable investment in future.
They need to be improved to a level where people can actually access their own homes and businesses at times of flooding. We must accept that flooding will occur on a regular basis and we must plan for that reality. Whether we like it or not, whether we are climate change deniers, sceptics or whatever, the fact is that our climate is changing and this type of torrential rain will be a feature of our lives into the future. We need to do the necessary planning to ensure people do not have their access to their properties cut off on a regular basis.
Extra funding is required for the considerable investment that must be put into regional roads. Last week, I visited the flooded section of the N65, which is a national secondary route located between Borrisokane and Portumna. Lough Derg flooded at Ballyquirke Cross, cutting access for ordinary vehicles. Only those driving large jeeps or trucks could get from one area to another. Such was the level of flooding that in order to highlight it, several local sports enthusiasts took to their water skis. I am not condoning that necessarily, but it was an imaginative way of showing the difficulty involved in getting from place to place. Some excellent improvement work was done by the National Roads Authority last year on a section of the road near the new bridge. That section did not flood. I appeal to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, to continue its good work in the area by putting a programme in place whereby the rest of the road can be resurfaced and upgraded to achieve the same positive impact. It is vital that this important artery through the area does not flood again.
The regional and local roads network likewise needs attention. During the recession, all budgets were cut across all Departments. The focus in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport was on capital projects, concentrating on motorways and some national secondary roads. The sections of the N62, for example, between Birr and Athlone and between Cloghan and Banagher were badly in need of upgrading. That work was started as part of a multi-annual investment plan and will be finished next year. However, the focus must now shift to regional, local and tertiary roads, some of which have been neglected to the extent that they are beginning to deteriorate. I have in mind, in particular, the R357, a regional road from Blue Ball to Shannonbridge which continues on to Ballinasloe. It is another very important route in which investment is required.
I am responding to the Deputy on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, who regrets that he cannot be here this afternoon. The most extensive impact of the weather to date in the transport sector has been on the road network through both pluvial and fluvial flooding. This has caused serious disruption to daily life in many areas and has led to the cutting off in some cases of small communities and households across the country.
Regional and local roads are the statutory responsibility of each local authority, and the authorities in the affected areas have been working very closely with all the relevant State agencies, including An Garda Síochána, to manage the immediate impact of the storms and floods. The Minister has asked me to acknowledge the tremendous work done by all concerned to ensure warning signs were in place, diversion routes were organised and signposted, and information and advice were made available to the public via websites, social media and local radio. The Road Safety Authority has also played its role in supporting and disseminating safety messages for all road users.
Local authorities and Transport Infrastructure Ireland have advised the Minister's Department that it is not possible as yet to obtain a comprehensive view of damage to road pavements until the floods fully recede and investigations and assessments are carried out. Bridges that were damaged as a result of the flooding and storms will need to be inspected and a detailed assessment of the damage undertaken. TII has engineering consultants on a bridge framework available to commence inspections once flooding has subsided. Where underwater inspection is required, this is a specialist area and only a limited number of consulting engineers have the capability to undertake such inspections. The chief executive of TII has written to local authorities offering the services of the framework consultants if there are non-national road bridges that need to be inspected. In certain cases, it may be some months before full information is available on the cost of repairs. In other cases, where water levels have receded more quickly, the timeframe will be shorter. The Minister's officials and TII staff will engage with local authority officials to minimise the timeframes associated with critical repair works.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has been taking the lead in responding to the immediate needs of local authorities arising from the storms and flooding and has provided funding to local authorities to allow them to deal quickly with the clean-up and implement the measures needed to protect public safety. That Department has also sought submissions from local authorities setting out both the estimated short-term costs and the costs related to damage to infrastructure, including transport. This is to ensure that a comprehensive picture of the full cost of the recent flood event across all sectors, including the road network at national, regional and local level, is garnered both by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. So far, 25 of the 28 local authorities have reported on their estimated infrastructure damage costs, and my Department is in the process of reviewing the estimates received so far.
The roads capital budget for 2016 is tight but, as indicated to Deputy Cowen, the Minister has asked his officials as a matter of urgency to assess areas where funding can be reprioritised or reallocated in order to release funding to deal with the consequences of the storms. The Minister is also conscious that the scale of the damage incurred and the overall substantial cost involved will require a cross-departmental response and he is liaising with Government colleagues on the funding needed.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. In the time remaining to me, I will focus on the area to which Deputy Cowen referred. I attended the same public meeting he mentioned and, prior to that, surveyed the flooding with a number of local residents around Ballhea and Rathcabbin. Having served many years on Offaly County Council, I am aware that this road has not been included in a roads programme for at least a decade. The extent of the work that now needs to be done is a result of that neglect. If the road had been included in a programme under which a section at a time was upgraded over a number of years, it would have prevented the absolute mess we have now. I have never seen a road as bad in all my time as a public representative. More than 100 houses are affected along the 15 km to 20 km section. One knows it is bad when the school bus cannot get down it and people are asking neighbours to take them out in tractors. All of this is without even much flooding; the road is that bad.
The type of investment that is needed in this case will be much more significant than what the local authority will be able to access. As such, a special case should be made for it. The council has had an assessment done of the likely costs and it seems we are looking at the guts of €750,000. That is a conservative estimate. We need to think creatively in situations like these. In a rural area, people have access to diggers and tractors and the manpower is there. Let us work in partnership to resolve the problem. We need to get creative or we are facing terrible consequences. We must start using our imaginations in the face of the terrible storms we have seen this winter.
I will convey the Deputy's concerns to the Minister. I advise that she write to him outlining the details of what is clearly a very inferior road which is having a huge effect on the lives of people in the local community in different ways.
I will be happy to convey the Deputy's sentiments to the Minister. He asked me to do so.