Thursday, 6 October 2016
I welcome the Minister to the House. Once again, I am raising the matter of the upgrading and building of the M20 motorway between Limerick and Cork. I am a public representative, representing Limerick city and a portion of the county. It is the single biggest item of infrastructure that needs to be completed in the State. I have raised this issue with the Minister on numerous occasions, including on 16 June last, and I know he has an interest in the matter.
There will be a mid-term review of the capital plan next year but before that happens, I hope the project will have received the go-ahead. It is a large and important project and I ask that the planning process be restarted before the review. When the project was suspended in November 2011, the planning process had, in the main, been completed as far as An Bord Pleanála level. This project can be reactivated. A lot of the work can be done prior to the mid-term review in 2017 and no time would be lost.
The planning process will involve Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, recruiting engineers and consultants to review the project. Under public procurement rules, that will take a number of months. There would be no cost to the State until they are in place. I seek a practical measure to restart the project and move it forward.
The mid-term review will consider giving the full green light to the building of the project but what I propose would provide us with, dare I say it, a flashing amber light. It would allow us to proceed, get the work done in preparation for the mid-term review and lose no time.
There are a number of reasons the M20 motorway is important. The first is that the most recent environmental impact study done by TII states that the benefits will outweigh the costs by more than two to one. Second, there are significant benefits in terms of time. At the moment, it takes well over 1.5 hours, or longer at peak times, to commute between Limerick and Cork - there is no certainty. The M20 would take 40 minutes off the journey time at peak times and would provide certainty. The third issue is safety. There have been fatalities along the existing N20 over the past number of years. Recently, on the small section of the M20 that has been built outside Limerick towards Patrickswell, there have, unfortunately, been fatalities.
The damage this delay is doing to connectivity and competitiveness in the region makes it imperative that the project goes ahead. In terms of balanced regional development, Dublin is doing very well but for Ireland to progress as a country, we must have balance around the regions. We need a counterpole to Dublin. The Galway to Tuam route is being completed. People will be able to commute between Galway and Limerick in a relatively short period of time. We need to ensure that people can do likewise from Limerick to Cork.
Synergies would be provided for Ireland internationally in terms of attracting foreign direct investment. People in my area are commuting daily to Cork and vice versa. We are a small country and need connectivity. I ask the Minister to restart the planning process and allow consultants to be recruited by TII in advance of the normal mid-term review of the capital plan in mid-2017.
I would like to thank the Senator for once again raising this issue. I agree with him and he continuously makes a strong case. The only argument against the project is one with which he will be familiar, namely, that we do not have the money. The case for the road, which he has made on grounds not just of safety but also benefits to the economy of the region, is one with which I am sympathetic. It would be compelling if we could write a cheque for €800 million. The problem is that we cannot. Perhaps I could explain a few things to the Senator about the current situation and then address the particular issue he raised about planning.
I would like to thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this matter again. I note that the Senator was given a briefing by my Department on the current position regarding the M20 yesterday.This is not a criticism but an indication of the persistence with which he is pursuing this project, which is fair enough.
As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding for the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual national road projects are matters for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, formerly known as the National Roads Authority, NRA, under the Roads Acts, 1993 to 2015, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects are matters, in the first instance, for TII in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act. Ireland has just under 100,000 kms of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads place a substantial financial burden on local authorities and the Exchequer. Because of the national financial position, there have been very large reductions in the Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure in recent years. For this reason, the focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal rather than major new improvement schemes such as the M20 project.
The capital plan published in September 2015 outlined proposed transport investment priorities to 2022. The transport element of the plan was framed by the conclusions reached in the Department's strategic investment framework for land transport. This report highlighted the importance of the maintenance and renewal of transport infrastructure, together with targeted investments to address particular bottlenecks and critical safety issues. The capital plan provides €6 billion for investment in the road network in the period to 2022, with €4.4 billion earmarked for the maintenance and strengthening of the existing extensive network throughout the country and €1.6 billion for new projects. Allowing for the commitments relating to public private partnership projects, the balance available for new projects in the available capital envelope was limited.
The transport element of the capital plan did provide for some targeted investment in a number of new projects in the Munster region, including the N8 and N25 Dunkettle interchange and the N22 Ballyvourney to Macroom schemes. In addition, a number of other schemes, targeted at removing bottlenecks and upgrading port access, will commence, subject to development consent. They include the Mallow relief road, the Adare bypass and the N28 Cork to Ringaskiddy road projects. It was not possible to include the M20 project in the capital plan as the scale of investment required to deliver it as originally proposed, estimated at €800 million, was not affordable. That investment could take up almost all of the moneys provided for new roads projects in the capital plan period.
We are all conscious that the recovery of the economy is generating spending pressures across the Government system, including in meeting capital investment needs. As part of A Programme for a Partnership Government, there is an increased emphasis on the need for spending on public services, but the Government still has to operate within EU fiscal rules, which does constrain options. As the Senator pointed out, there will be a mid-term review of the capital plan which will provide an opportunity to assess progress and consider what scope there is for increased levels of investment, depending on economic growth.
Since the capital plan was published, there has been significant interest, led by the Senator, in finding a means to at least restart planning work on the M20 project. I understand from the Senator there was recent press coverage on the issue. I am aware that the Cork to Limerick motorway represents a significant section of the Atlantic corridor, which was intended to promote development of the region. As matters stand, however, I do not have the funding available to progress this scheme to restart the planning process. I do expect though that the M20 Cork to Limerick motorway project will be looked at in the planned mid-term review of the capital plan.
I will go straight to the heart of the matter. In November 2011 the project was suspended. From discussions with officials, I understand that at that stage the bulk of the planning process, if not the entire process, had been completed and that the project was just about to be referred to An Bord Pleanála. Will the Minister allow the planning process to re-engage, which would amount to nothing more than TII recruiting engineers and consultants to engage in an overall review of the project? An economic benefit analysis could be incorporated into the review which would be good value for money for the taxpayer. Will the Minister consider this rather than look at the planning and building of the project in the mid-term review? There should be due diligence as part of an economic cost benefit analysis. I accept that this is an enormous project, but it would also yield enormous benefits. The Minister has a background in seeking value for taxpayers' money. Conducting an economic cost benefit analysis would provide value for the taxpayer in the long, if not the short, term.
I take the Senator's point. I am not aware of the stage in the planning process the project had reached at the time, but I accept what the Senator says that it was near completion. I do not want him to have a forlorn hope that the project will go ahead, if that is not true. That would be dishonest and unhelpful. If what he has said is correct - I have no reason not to believe him - I could contact TII to ask what the position was and to ask it to look at the matter and report back to me. I can give the Senator a commitment that I will do this, on condition that he does not take any such approach to the TII as a green light for the project to go ahead.