Wednesday, 24 March 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
51. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he will report on the potential allocation of funding to a project (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15632/21]
I thank the Minister for allowing me the opportunity to ask for a progress update on the R624 road into Cobh. Cobh is a town of 13,000 people and is in desperate need of a significant and substantial upgrade to the access road into and out of the town up to the N25 near Tullagreen House. Will the Minister give us a progress update on that?
The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from councils' own resources and supplemented by State road grants. The national development plan, NDP, as it stands provides for the gradual build-up of funding for the road network but funding is not yet at the level needed for the adequate maintenance and renewal of regional and local roads. For this reason, the primary focus for capital investment continues to be the maintenance and renewal of the network, with some limited investment in road improvement projects. The NDP is under review. The aim of the review in the transport sector is to align policy with the Government's priorities as set out in the programme for Government.
If any transport project is to be considered for funding under the revised NDP, it must be appraised for compliance with the public spending code as revised in December 2019. An important change to the code is the introduction of a requirement for a strategic assessment report, SAR, for all projects with an estimated expenditure of €10 million or more. The SAR is now a key deliverable at the first decision stage in the project appraisal process. The purpose of the SAR is to examine the rationale for potential policy interventions and ensure the strategic fit of potential projects and programmes with Government policy, particularly the national planning framework and the national development plan. A common cause of problems with projects is a failure to clearly specify objectives and desired outcomes at the outset. The introduction of the requirement for a SAR is designed to guard against this and ensure early engagement with, and scrutiny of, potential public investment projects and programmes.
Regarding the R624 specifically, my Department has had some engagement with Cork County Council following the submission of an initial project appraisal in 2019. In this context, the public spending code project appraisal requirements have been explained to the council. As the council has indicated that it is proposing to appoint consultants in connection with the proposed scheme, my officials have proposed a meeting between the council and the Department's strategic research and analysis division regarding the preparation of the SAR relating to the scheme.
I am happy to hear that the council and the Department will engage directly with each other. We need to get this project included under the NDP to ensure it will be allocated the necessary funds. There is a strong case for why Cobh should receive this investment, particularly factoring in the standard and quality of the current road and recognising that the island is serviced by exceptionally good public transport, which will be improved with the CEMAT strategy. We have to acknowledge that the road that is in place is very old. We are dealing with a bridge in Belvelly that was built in the 1800s and is in terrible condition. It has to closed frequently, which leaves the island cut off, something that is completely and utterly unacceptable in the 21st century.
We are desperately in need of this investment. I encourage the Minister to continue to engage with all stakeholders involved. Perhaps he will be able to give us further insight into what he will be doing in his engagement with Cork County Council, the local authority leading this project.
As I indicated in the response, those meetings will be important. The Deputy is right; one of the key issues here relates to that bridge and the fact that there have been a number of incidents in recent years, including flooding, as a result of which the bridge has had to be closed. It is a very old bridge in quite an exposed position, as are other sections of the roadway. The key question relates to the solutions to that problem. Widening of the bridge is not appropriate given its historic nature. I presume that looking at alternative crossing points will be one of the key considerations of the consultants and the county council. As I have said, this issue is slightly separate to that affecting the longer section of the road. This is where the strategic appraisal will kick into gear. This will identify the key issues to address, what benefits it is possible to achieve and what is likely to be the best technical approach to solving the problems that exist. I hope that process will be completed speedily.
I stress the requirement for funding for this project, bearing in mind that it will cost approximately €100 million. We have to bear in mind that Cobh is in a very strategic location in Cork Harbour. It is also one of the leading destinations for cruise ships not only in Ireland, but in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of tourists arrive into Ireland through Cobh. The historic nature of the town also attracts a lot of visitors to the region. This road is unfortunately holding back this great island from reaching its full potential. It is a beautiful and scenic place which many people want to visit but the issue of the access road is deterring a lot of investment in housing, enterprise and business, and is preventing potential tourism from being attracted into the region. We have to look at this in the strongest possible terms. I encourage the Minister to do all he can to support investment in this infrastructure. Although the town is already well served by public transport these problems are still chronic and need to be addressed.
The Deputy is right. The area is critical and Cobh is a very important destination and an historic location. There are other investments being made which I will mention when answering a later question. These relate to the development of greenways and urban development support for Cobh and the surrounding area. As the Deputy said, there is other transport infrastructure in the area. The rail service to Cobh has been a great success and may benefit from the upgrade of the line from Midleton to Cork and continuing on to the other side which we are looking to carry out. This has the potential to further enhance the attractiveness of the Cobh rail services. The rail review we are conducting will give us the opportunity to again look at rail connectivity to the likes of Marino Point, which historically was of real strategic benefit. We should be looking at those options and at developments in the industrial estate in Marino to see what sustainable transport solutions could be implemented to support those sorts of investments.