Tuesday, 2 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for being present again. There is a sense of déjà vubecause having checked the record, I note that we discussed this matter on 17 November 2020. In the almost 12 months since, much water has passed under the bridge but we have cleared the latest hurdle through the most recent decision of the High Court to rule in favour of the greenway project. I am therefore here again tonight to reiterate the requirement for funding for the south Kerry greenway, which will be an iconic and world-class greenway once it is constructed. I am very hopeful we will have the ultimate green light in the very near future and complete the planning process for the initial and substantive phases of the greenway. As the Minister knows, it will require substantial up-front investment. I estimate in excess of €20 million will be required.
My understanding is the funding would be delivered under the new model through Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII.This will involve the Minister's Department and I hope it will involve a Government decision as the project will be of national importance. It will not just be a local or regional project.
I know the Minister is very passionate about this and he knows the territory well. He is very familiar with it. When we spoke last year, he was very passionate about the project and any time I speak with him in the corridors, I can tell he gets cycling. This project will be transformative for the entire region and marketable internationally as a national project.
We should bear in mind that if the up-front cost is in excess of €20 million, much of that will come back to the Exchequer in the construction phase. I am very confident, as all our research indicates, that within a very short time the revenue generated by this project will far outweigh any State investment required.
I ask the Minister to make provision for the construction funding that will be required for the south Kerry greenway. As I said, I am hopeful we will have the ultimate green light in a matter of days. At that stage, we must be ready to go as soon as possible in order to get this moving. The Minister knows the area of south Kerry I am talking about. It has suffered major decline over decades, particularly in the past 20 years when it suffered economically and socially. It has really struggled. If the arrival of the Farranfore-Valentia railway in 1893 to south Kerry was ultimately a symbol of hope, the subsequent removal of the rail line in 1960 was a symbol of despair. The return of the greenway could be another symbol of hope and real economic prosperity. It is so important to this part of the county, including places like Glenbeigh, Kells, Foilmore, Cahersiveen, Reenard, Valentia Island and the whole of south Kerry.
It is something I am deeply passionate about. The Minister will know from the debates we have had in this House how I feel about this project. It was first put in place about 130 years ago and will be here for 130 years or more in the future. It will be our grandchildren and great grandchildren who will benefit from it. It is a very important project.
I thank Deputy Griffin for his contribution and regular discussions on this issue. I am hopeful, once the legal challenges against this project end and solutions are found for the sections excluded from the planning permission granted by An Bord Pleanála, an updated application for funding will be submitted by Kerry County Council to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. A significant portion of the original funding allocated to Kerry County Council for the project remains unclaimed and sufficient funds remain to enable it to submit an excellent request. I know the staff in Kerry County Council have been consulted on many occasions by staff in other local authorities to learn from their experience. I expect any future submission will, again, be of the highest quality. The Deputy will be glad to know that TII has started the process of determining a national cycle network that will be published late next year, which will include a number of other greenways and routes in Kerry, linking it with surrounding counties. We know of the ambition Kerry has in this regard and the progress it is making with the south Kerry greenway and the greenway from Fenit, which travels through Tralee, on to Listowel and continues to Limerick city.
Through the programme for Government and the commitments therein, as well as the national development plan, we now have the money to see these ambitious plans realised over the coming decade. It is important that we continue to press ahead with delivering high quality infrastructure that enables people to choose to cycle and walk to work, school and shops, and that can be used for leisure and tourism. This week in Glasgow, we will hopefully see the nations of the world commit to doing things better and to provide opportunities for our people to act and think differently. I hope and expect that any funding requests submitted by Kerry County Council to deliver this stunning greenway will meet the criteria set out in the public spending code and that the TII will determine it appropriate to fund these. I look forward to cycling on the greenway in the coming years, as I have done in that neck of the woods for many decades.
The point raised about this section of greenway connecting into other sections, including a Killarney to Tralee route that connects into the Listowel link, into Tarbert and on to Limerick, is important. I worked in cycling tourism for many years and brought many people into Kerry on holidays. In Germany or America, when a person is selling the merits of an area, people want to see an integrated network as part of an overall network. I refer to the networks we have in Kerry and west Cork, including the roads in the Iveragh peninsula and Ballaghbeama, in the centre of the peninsula. We do not need a greenway on some of those roads. The volume of traffic is low and local people expect to see cyclists because it is a popular area and they are curious to them. It is not the case that we must always have greenways. Anyone who knows anything about cycling knows that the Ring of Kerry main road - one can hardly call it a "main road" because it is not that wide of a road - particularly the section from Killorglin to Glenbeigh, is not comfortable. I brought thousands of people there who cycled on this route over the years and it is not a comfortable place to be. The speed of the traffic is in the region of 80 km to 100 km per hour. There is no real road margin. There are tight bridges and bends on occasion. We cannot get rid of all those features because part of the charm of the Ring of Kerry is that it is such a scenic area. That is why this route makes so much sense. It provides safe options that mirror the main road and can connect to the other greenways that we will create as part of a network. It can open up beyond Valentia, Portmagee and over the incredible road to Ballinskelligs, on which we do not need a greenway because traffic is relatively slow and the volume is low there. This section will be part of the overall network, some of which will be greenway and some not. We need to design an integrated route network for the sake of Kerry people and tourists.
The Minister has nailed it in one. This is a key component but we do not have to build greenways all over the country. There are many local tertiary roads that are underutilised at present and often looked upon as liabilities by local authorities. With minor engineering work they could be massive assets. Perhaps they could have a special designation status as a priority cycle route which would allow for the linking up of dedicated greenways. I wrote about this in 2013. I raised the south Kerry greenway in my first council motion in 2009. We are almost over the line at this stage now.
As the Minister will know, money talks and the key discussion to be had around the south Kerry greenway is to secure the funding. I am confident the remaining issues, in regard to permissions for the small number of sections we spoke about, can be overcome. In the meantime, it would be a shame if there was an unnecessary delay of the overall project, while some of the minor issues are ironed out. This is a project of national importance and it will feed into many of the aims in the programme for Government, in regard to the integrated cycle networks and in making the Wild Atlantic Way more cycling and walking friendly where possible, and all the outdoor initiatives emphasised in the programme.
Old railways, in particular, are brilliant for greenways because their gradients are suitable for cyclists of all abilities. I cycled the Waterford greenway during the summer with my family. My eight-year-old son managed to do 46 km on his bike in a single day because the gradient was amenable to people of all levels of ability. This is no different from the situation in Kerry and it will be an inclusive facility. It will be a massive game changer, but we need the money.
As I said, some of the money is already sitting in accounts waiting for the legal issues to be resolved. Some €3.46 million was allocated in April 2014 and a further €415,000 was issued in the same year for the section in Reenard. Some of that amount is in dormant accounts waiting to be used. Considering how inflation has raised significantly since then in construction, and how some of the work on the viaduct tunnel bridges would probably be more significant than on an ordinary route, one can see how it would be expensive. Transport Infrastructure Ireland has a critical role to play in this. Its designation, working with local authorities, to have the responsibility of rolling out of this national network of greenways was made quite deliberately. Transport Infrastructure Ireland is one of our best delivery agents. It tends to deliver projects on time and on budget. It has real engineering expertise and skills. I will say to TII that a requirement of good engineering is to get good value for money. The importance of that is not to undermine any one project or not to spare money on the likes of this project, which is a spectacular project that takes one's breath away. The route will look out over Kells Bay on a promontory railway line. The engineers had a hell of an imagination and nerve in 1893 when they built it. It will, therefore, require significant investment. In general, we must be careful not to over-engineer or over-spec the route, and that we get as good value for money as possible so that we can get as many kilometres done as possible, in many instances with minimal intervention and low-cost measures.
During Covid times, we saw what was achieved in Dún Laoghaire. Some might say it is different, but it is not that different. It was a section of roadway on a beautiful seafront. That was completed for a fraction of the cost that people expected because we had a local director of services who was willing to be brave, to think innovatively and to do things differently in experimental ways. I hope TII and Kerry County Council will take the same approach. We will have to spend money on the railway section because it is very special, but the intention is to complete the overall network in a way that does not cost the earth.