Thursday, 7 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to deal with this important issue, with which she is very familiar. I do not want anything I will say to in any way pre-empt or be seen to try to influence An Bord Pleanála. Its decision will be made in due course, but it is imminent. It is what happens after that decision is made, if it is positive, and what processes will follow that I want to address.
This project has been in existence for the past 30 years, but the reality is the most recent analysis of Galway's transport requirements was done in 2016 by Galway City Council, Galway County Council and the National Transport Authority, NTA. It was a very comprehensive strategy that looked at walking, cycling, public transport, etc. One of the things it highlighted was that Galway needed a road around the city as a piece of critical infrastructure to connect east to west. The Minister of State, no more than me, is familiar with the territory, but many people watching and listening to this debate will not be. Approximately 40,000 people live in the west of the city while another 40,000 people, approximately, live in Connemara, which is west of the city. That is a total population of 80,000. It is an area that attracts a large number of tourists every year.
There are two ways out of Connemara, effectively. One can come across the city. Alternatively, because Lough Corrib forms a barrier between east and west - between Connemara and the west of the city and the east of the city and the rest of the country - one has to go 50 km north, to where I live in Cornamona, to get out by the next available route. Within the city, there are four bridges across the River Corrib, three of which are old. One of them, the Salmon Weir Bridge, which is very famous in Galway and that many people know, is to be transformed for public transport, cycling and walking use only. The other two bridges in the city centre are very narrow, which leaves one newer bridge across the River Corrib to take the traffic of 80,000 people coming and going, many of whom do so every day. In Galway, many people live in the west of the city, while its industry is in the east of it.
They need to break the logjam to free up city space for cycling, walking and all the other purposes we want in our living cities, including for public transport, with which Galway is poorly served because the road infrastructure is not there. The need to progress with this bypass is evident.
I want the Minister of State to outline the processes that will have to be followed if this project is approved by An Bord Pleanála before it will go to construction, taking into account the announcement in the national development plan, NDP, this week and, more particularly, the announcement made by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of a new step he has put into the evaluation of all these projects as regards their carbon footprint.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The Minister for Transport has responsibility for overall policy and securing Exchequer funding for the national roads programme. Once funding arrangements have been put in place with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Tll, under the Roads Acts, 1993 to 2015, and in line with the NDP, the planning, design, improvement and upgrading of individual national roads is a matter for Tll, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Tll ultimately delivers the national roads programme in line with Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework, and the NDP.
In the new NDP, launched on 4 October, approximately €5.1 billion is earmarked for new national road projects to 2030. This funding will enable improved connectivity across the country as well as compact growth, which are core components of the revised NDP. The funding will enable the development of numerous national road projects, including the completion of projects at construction stage and those close to it, as well as the development of many others.
The N6 Galway city ring road is one of the projects included in the new NDP, which is currently at the planning application stage. The proposed project around Galway city comprises 12.5 km of motorway and 6 km of single carriageway. The route would run between the existing N6 at Coolagh to the existing Ballymoneen Road and continues as a single carriageway road for a further 5 km of protected road, west of Barna. The new orbital route would travel around the city and include a new bridge crossing of the River Corrib.
Galway County Council published the road scheme and submitted the planning documentation for the scheme to An Bord Pleanála for approval in October 2018. An Bord Pleanála wrote to the council in April 2019 requesting further information about the environmental impacts of the scheme, and this was submitted in August 2019. An Bord Pleanála requested that the council publish the further information for inspection by the public. The closing date for further information on display was 25 October 2019 and this was subsequently extended to 24 January 2020.
An oral hearing commenced on 18 February 2020 and concluded on 4 November 2020, inclusive of a seven-month gap in proceedings due to Covid-19 restrictions. Galway County Council is awaiting a decision from An Bord Pleanála, which has recently been pushed back to a decision by a new target date of 19 November 2021. If planning approval is received from An Bord Pleanála and there are no legal challenges, the proposed project will require Government approval under the public spending code to proceed to the next stage, including procurement of a contractor, given that the project cost is expected to be more than €100 million. It would also be subject to final Government approval in advance of construction.
As the Deputy said, this project is a key component of the Galway transport strategy, which realises Galway city and county councils' vision of all elements of transport working together to achieve an integrated, sustainable transport system. The project would, as the Deputy said, free up road space in the city by removing through traffic for use by improved public transport services and active travel modes, while improving air quality and reducing noise levels in the city. As the principal economic centre of the west, Galway city is critical to employment in the region and this project would contribute towards ensuring the city is able to cater for future economic expansion and development. As a gateway to Connemara and the western region, which includes large Gaeltacht areas, the optimisation of transport connectivity within Galway city will be essential to help the region chart a steady course for economic growth. The additional bridge crossing of the Corrib will provide this accessibility to the west. By reducing traffic volumes on the existing road network, this proposed project will drastically improve journey times and allow for safer and more reliable journeys for road users. It will improve the existing collision rating, which currently stands at twice the average rate in the country.
The project will provide direct access to major employment centres at Parkmore and Ballybrit business parks, and offers an opportunity to execute the vision of the Galway transport strategy. Galway County Council has an advanced negotiating strategy in place for the proposed Galway city ring road. All affected householders were invited to participate and discussions and negotiations have been ongoing with those willing to participate since mid-2019. If the scheme is approved and confirmed, the council will prioritise the acquisition and agreements associated with the affected residential properties.
May I ask for a full transcript of the Minister of State's response because I received only a precis of it? The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced during the week a new process that is to be followed. It seems to have been designed as a clever way of stopping projects such as this. Can the Minister of State outline what that process will entail? In the case of a road, will the process be based on cars, heavy goods vehicles and buses that are fuelled by fossil fuels or, as will happen in the future, vehicles that are fuelled by hydrogen? Hydrogen will be produced in abundance in the west of because we will have so much renewable electricity. We are already looking at hydrogen fuelled and electric public transport in the region. Can the Minister of State outline how this new process will work out, what it will entail and the basis on which it will be decided? Is this just a new method by the Green Party to stop this project going ahead and to stymy, once again, the proper development not only of Galway city, but of the entire region west of the city that requires so much development?
My basic question is: what is really going on? What is the subtext to all of these new announcements? I notice there was no reference in the Minister of State's reply to the new layer of bureaucracy that is being added to the scheme. I know this was not added without a deadly purpose. I am trying to elicit whether this is a scheme by the Minister to make sure this project does not go ahead and will be strangled if or when it gets through the An Bord Pleanála process.
I thank the Deputy. If planning approval is received from An Bord Pleanála and there are no legal challenges, the proposed project will then require Government approval under the public spending code to proceed to the next stage. That will include procurement of a contractor. Given that the project will cost more than €100 million, it will also be subject to final Government approval in advance of construction. I can ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on the sequencing of approvals, if this project is approved by An Bord Pleanála.
This project is a key component of Galway transport strategy, which realises Galway city and county councils' vision of all elements of the transport system working together to achieve an integrated, sustainable transport system. The Galway city ring road would free up free up road space in the city by removing through traffic. That road space could be used for improved public transport services and active travel modes, while improving air quality and reducing noise levels. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the timeline for this vital regional project. As I said, the oral hearing commenced on 18 February 2020 and concluded on 4 November 2020 due to a seven-month gap in proceedings as a result of Covid. I am confident that An Bord Pleanála will make its decision next month and I am hopeful for a positive outcome.
The programme for Government commits to a 2:1 ratio of spending on new public transports over new roads. This commitment has been confirmed in the NDP, published this week, which makes clear that substantial funding will be made available over the coming decade for new national road programmes and projects. As the principal economic centre in the west, Galway city is critical to employment in the region and this project would contribute towards ensuring the city is able to cater for future economic expansion and development.
I have stepped out of a Cabinet meeting but I am quite happy to be here because this is an important project for the region. If this project is approved by An Bord Pleanála and if there are no legal challenges, the next step is to seek Government approval, as required under the public spending code. We will then proceed to the next stage, procurement of a contractor. Given that the project will cost in excess of €100 million, it will require further Government approval. There is another process under the national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, which involves four priorities, all of which are given equal weight and ranking. The first priority is to ensure that roads have regional connectivity, the second is decarbonisation and another is to ensure the mobility of goods and people in our urban centres. All of these are taken into consideration when looking at projects. I will give the Deputy more information and I will relay his questions to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
I assure Members that I will correspond with the Minister of State based on what she has said. If Deputy Ó Cuív is not satisfied with the response, he should feel free to raise this matter here again.