Dáil debates

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Topical Issue Debate

Greenways Funding

4:35 pm

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I wish the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, the very best in his new Department. I note that he has been to Ballymahon and Athlone in relation to this project and assessing the viability of the greenways. First, I will focus on the Westmeath section. The Government has commissioned a cycle route from Mullingar to Athlone at a cost of €7 million, which came from the economic stimulus fund. This has been a huge success for the area. When discussing these projects, it is important to use the word "greenways". What we mean by that is that they are suitable for cycling, walking, running and family events, which brings the whole community together. I note that activity has increased sharply along the Mullingar to Athlone greenway and the use has been significant over the last number of weeks. Car parks are being developed at key locations along the greenway to ensure maximum use. However, the Athlone section of the greenway needs an extension from Garrycastle, where the greenway currently ends, to White Gates in Athlone. This is a ready-made project and would have huge benefits in terms of providing access through to the regional sports centre and three schools. It would form part of the regeneration of the area. I urge the Minister, having been to Athlone and hearing first-hand from the officials, to progress this project and authorise funding from his Department. There could be huge community gains.

I will focus now on County Longford. I acknowledge the huge work that Longford County Council is doing in relation to the greenway network. The local authority has a proposal to progress a section from Abbeyshrule to Ballymahon and Killashee. The Part 8 planning permission process has been completed for the section and, as such, I point out that this is a ready-to-go project. I urge the Minister to consider strongly approving funding within the Department for the project. He was also in Ballymahon where I attended a meeting at which he met the officials of Longford County Council. The previous Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, was also in the area where he met with the local authority and public representatives to discuss this worthwhile project. Longford County Council has invested a huge amount of funding in this, €50,000 on two occasions. I also understand that Longford Tourism invested €250,000. A lot of people in Longford are frustrated about the finishing off of the national spatial strategy which precluded the county from applying for a lot of different streams of funding. That was because of the gateway status heretofore. However, with the dawn of the Center Parcs project, the Government has a key chance to invest in County Longford to make it a hub for tourism. That can be developed now. Fáilte Ireland is aggressively promoting Ireland's Ancient East, the Wild Atlantic Way and this is a key project it can get behind in terms of the whole gateway status in County Longford and County Westmeath. In turn, that would improve tourism in the county and have massive economic benefit. It also has great health benefits for the area. Families and communities can gain the rewards from this investment and enjoy the fruits of it.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Dublin Rathdown, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy for bringing this very important issue to my attention. Indeed, I have had more questions on this particular issue in the last two days than I have had on anything else. Greenways are all the rage.

As the Deputy said, I was recently in County Westmeath and met with him, my colleague, Deputy Kevin Moran, councillors and officials from Westmeath County Council. I was taken by their commitment to developing greenways in County Westmeath and was impressed by the significant work carried out to date on both the old rail trail from Mullingar to Athlone and the greenway from Mullingar to Abbeyshrule in County Longford. Both projects were funded by my Department as was the original section of this greenway from the Meath border to Mullingar alongside the Royal Canal. To date, I understand that Westmeath County Council has been provided with funding of €8.7 million for greenway development in the county. This shows the commitment of both Westmeath and my Department to the development of these wonderful amenities. Indeed, Westmeath is the centre of much of the greenway network that we have in this country. From the county border with County Meath to Abbeyshrule in Longford and Athlone, there is a grand total of just over 80 km of greenways in County Westmeath.

With regard to County Longford, I understand that the county council has done some very good work to date with no funding from other sources to achieve planning permission for its own cycle network in the county. It also provided the entire funding to extend the greenway from the county border with Westmeath into the village of Abbeyshrule. This is an example to other local authorities of what can be achieved through a bottom-up approach to the development of greenway projects. With the prospect of the Center Parcs facility opening near Ballymahon in a few years, the future for tourism in County Longford is looking very positive.

As part of my Department's plans for the Galway to Dublin greenway, we hope to continue the greenway from Garrycastle to the marina in Athlone and westwards across the Shannon to Galway. I understand that Westmeath County Council has planning in place for this section and is shortly to submit an application for planning for a new bridge across the Shannon from the marina. I understand that the proposed extension from Garrycastle to White Gates provides links to a number of schools and colleges in Athlone and would therefore provide the opportunity to assist in increasing the numbers cycling to school and college. This is a hugely important benefit to those living in Athlone and the surrounding area and would also be of benefit to the younger generation in educating them and encouraging them in the use of more sustainable forms of transport.

The experience of the great western greenway in County Mayo has shown that there is a definite appetite for this type of route, which provides not only a different view of the country in terms of the tourism experience, but also a safe and secure route for cyclists of all levels of ability and confidence.

The cross-cutting benefits of cycling are multifaceted and range from tourism and health, both physical and mental, to rural development and urban regeneration. Anyone who has seen the transformation of Newport on the great western greenway will have seen this first hand, not to mention the contribution to a reduction in carbon emissions and a decrease in congestion in our towns and cities. I was pleased to see that the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Dublin City Council's publication of the canal cordon count for 2015 showed another increase in the numbers cycling into Dublin city centre during rush hour. We need to continue increasing the numbers cycling, and greenways provide an easy introduction to cycling for some and a reintroduction for others who may have cycled when younger.

4:45 pm

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply and will make a few points on foot of it. As he outlined, a number of projects will be considered for funding by his Department, but I assure him that the projects in counties Longford and Westmeath would have major benefits. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the fact that they are ready to go. Longford and Westmeath county councils have done great work to date and significant economic benefit could be reaped by going the extra mile.

I will push this point strongly for County Longford, the people of which have endured a great deal in recent years. The dawn of the Center Parcs project is a ray of hope, but we need to get the facilities in place to meet that project. We must work hard so as to ensure that the cycle network is up and running and we can get maximum benefit from the project. We must market the greenway aggressively. Fáilte Ireland has a number of projects nationally, including Ireland's Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way, but this one involves a number of local amenities and features that could bring significant economic benefit to the area, for example, old abandoned stations along the Mullingar-Athlone route that could be visited by tourists, provide a glimpse of our past and be a great asset to our community.

I thank the Minister for his work and for visiting the constituency and meeting officials from the area. I urge him to put this project at the top of his Department's regional priorities.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Dublin Rathdown, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy. I hate to say it to him, but I have been invited back to Athlone by Deputy Moran. Deputy Burke will be fed up seeing me, as I will revisit the area and see those parts of the greenway that I did not see last time.

I am energised, as are my Department and my colleagues, by the idea of greenways, which was only recently introduced to me in a serious way. Deputy Burke will find that the Department and I are not lacking in our enthusiasm for the project that he described and I hope that we will be able to see progress on it shortly.

Funding is an issue for cycling infrastructure in our towns and cities and for greenways development. I am considering which projects we will spend the remainder of our 2016 allocation on, focusing on those that can be delivered as soon as possible. The projects submitted by Westmeath and Longford will figure in those considerations, as will the sections of the Galway-Dublin greenway in counties Kildare and Meath that would provide a 100 km route from Maynooth to Athlone and see a significant increase in the already impressive numbers using the old rail trail. Only those greenway proposals that have planning permission in place, such as those that I have mentioned along with the Tullamore-Lough Boora greenway in Offaly, will be considered for this reallocation of funding. I hope to be in a position to make these decisions on funding shortly.