Wednesday, 2 July 2003
I wish to query the Government's road building capability. The national development plan was launched with great fanfare a few years ago and we were told we would have dual carriageways everywhere by 2006. We were promised there would be no more delays and that our infrastructure, which the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment described as being of Third World standard, would be upgraded. We were told we had nothing more to fear. Unfortunately, we are only three years away from 2006 and we have fallen far behind schedule. People are wasting their lives stuck in cars due to congestion, while incurring massive insurance costs.
The Government's record in this area is not good. According to recent reports, over 20 major projects are ready to begin, but the Government has failed to provide the necessary funding. I hope the Minister of State will clarify this matter in his response. I would also be grateful if the Minister of State would clarify the Government's commitment to the national development plan. During the last general election campaign, there was grave confusion and blatantly opportunistic politicking by Fianna Fáil and, in particular, the Progressive Democrats in the south east in relation to the N9 from Kilcullen to Waterford. Deputy O'Donnell recently spoke in the south east and stated that the Progressive Democrats had made no promises in the last general election. She said they were made by the Fianna Fáil boys. This is not the truth and I seek clarification on the status of the major intercity routes connecting Dublin, Cork and Waterford.
How do we plan to upgrade these roads? We are being told by some Progressive Democrats that they feel these projects are a waste of money. If this is the case, why is the NRA making almost €3 million available to Kilkenny County Council to progress the southern end of the N9 motorway? Why is the NRA providing €2 million to Kildare County Council with regard to the same project? Why are landowners being told one thing only to find that the opposite happens? Landowners are badly affected by the road and they deserve to know where they stand. While it is awful to have a motorway built on one's farm, especially if one is involved in dairying, if one knows one is to be compensated and when that compensation will be paid, one can plan ahead and move on. Landowners cannot do that at present as certain politicians are making mutually exclusive statements.
I thank Senator Browne for raising this issue. My ministerial colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, has asked me to tender his apologies. He is caught up in a meeting. I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on the important issue of the national roads programme and to report on progress in implementing the upgraded programme provided for in the national development plan.
The Minister, Deputy Brennan, and I wish to see a safe and efficient road network which we recognise is a key ingredient for continued economic success, more balanced regional development and enhanced levels of personal mobility. In response to the long-standing and well-recognised deficiencies in the national road network, the national development plan provided for a major increase in investment in upgrading the national roads network. Exchequer spending on the national roads improvement programme this year will amount to over €1.2 billion which is the highest ever level. Investment in the period 2000-03 will amount to €3.823 billion which exceeds by approximately 13% the figure forecast in the national development plan.
Senator Browne took the opportunity to make a political point in respect of commitments made during the last general election campaign. That election was won on the basis of the good government practised by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats since 1997. Some people are sore at the fact that the people had the confidence in the Government to re-elect it, which is something we have not seen in this State's recent history. Senator Browne's party had the opportunity to invest in roads and to fulfil its other promises, but it failed. There were other instances when his party made promises but failed to implement them.
I have outlined the expenditure on this issue. Much is being achieved with this level of investment. The House will be aware of the continuing transformation of the road network around the country. Good progress is being made in upgrading the network as evidenced by the 27 schemes completed in the period 2000 to date, including major projects on the M1; 16 major projects in construction or due to start shortly, including the bypasses of Kildare, Monasterevin, Kilcock/Kinnegad and Cashel; and the commencement of the tendering process on ten further projects throughout the country with a view, subject to available funding and the outcome of the tendering process, to commencing work on the projects in 2004. These include long awaited bypasses of Loughrea, Ennis and Ashbourne as well as the Sligo inner relief road.
Route by route, the network is being upgraded to a standard that will support growth and development and facilitate more balanced regional development. Senator Browne is concerned about cost overruns and delays in completing the programme in the timeframe originally envisaged. He is not alone in this regard. All involved in implementing the programme share these concerns. The cost of the programme mandated in the NDP has increased substantially. The main reasons for this are some underestimation in costs when the NDP was being drawn up in 1999; construction cost inflation in the period 1999-2001; exceptional items such as the upgrade of the N9, higher land costs on the south eastern motorway and additional costs on the Dublin port tunnel; higher land acquisition costs, particularly in Dublin and adjacent to urban areas; and the availability of more accurate and detailed estimates as projects progressed from preliminary to more detailed planning.
A proactive response is being taken to address the pressures arising from the increased cost of the programme. The NRA has strengthened its arrangements for cost estimation and control as an integral part of the strengthening of project management and monitoring arrangements, including appointment of a cost estimation specialist who reviews all cost estimates, benchmarking tender and scheme outturn costs and greater use of design and build lump sum contracts offering cost efficiencies, greater certainty of outturn costs and reduced scope for claims.
The increased cost of the programme means that some projects will take longer to complete than originally envisaged. Nevertheless, the ambitious upgrade programme provided for in the NDP remains a valid strategic framework for the development of the national roads network. On the basis of a continuation of existing levels of funding, the NRA estimates that full completion of the major inter-urban routes could extend to 2009-10. However, route completion dates will depend on the funding levels available in the years ahead and on construction and land acquisition costs. The Government is seeking to ensure, within the constraints of available funding, that the pace and momentum of the national roads upgrade programme is maintained and, if possible, accelerated.
The Minister for Transport is committed to achieving real improvements in the transport network. He is considering ways of accelerating and streamlining procedures for the delivery of major infrastructure projects in the transport area. The focus will be on developing a package of measures which will shorten the approval period for such projects and also reduce costs. The Minister has already made progress in this regard, some of which received coverage in the media recently.
Billions of taxpayers' moneys will be saved as a result of the Minister's commitment. That should be acknowledged. Measures under consideration include the degree to which public consultation is appropriate and issues connected with compensation for land being compulsorily acquired. The preparation of a critical transport infrastructure Bill is included in the current Government legislation programme. The House will agree that significant improvement of our national roads network is clearly underway despite the challenges presented by the implementation of a programme of such magnitude.