Seanad debates

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Road Projects

10:30 am

Mark Wall (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for being with us. I am sorry the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is not here but I am sure the Minister of State will bring some good news.

For over 40 years, the good people of Athy and its surrounds have waited in hope, expectation and often desperation for a new relief road. Over those 40 years, there have been many false dawns and promises but, finally, in October 2017, for the first time ever, the proposed road was granted planning permission. Since first being elected as a public representative, this has been the number one issue for me and the people I represent. At a special meeting for councillors in early 2018, following confirmation of the planning permission, we were informed by Kildare County Council that land acquisition would begin later that year with pre-evaluation of tenders in early 2019 and that the main tender would be awarded in quarter 3 of 2019. The main road was due to commence in quarter 1 of 2020, with the road due to open in quarter 1 of 2022, or so we were told.

During this time, I and all the public representatives in Athy continued to raise this matter at each council meeting. Indeed, it is a standing item each month on the agenda. Month after month we asked if there was any problem with funding, timelines or obstacles to the opening of this much-needed road and month after month we were told there were none. We are fully aware that we are in a pandemic which visited our shores in early 2020 and continues to dominate and affect everything we do. However, alarm bells have been going off every month since the beginning of this pandemic as I was told that there were Covid delays, but nothing major, and that the road was on target, albeit progress would be delayed by a number of months. The alarm bells grew louder in the past two months when I learned that the project has not advanced to the tender stage. We are now a full year behind schedule. I, along with colleagues, was hearing about Covid-enforced delays and, most alarmingly, new demands from the Department of Transport.

At yesterday's Athy municipal district meeting, my colleagues, Councillors Breslin and Lee, along with all the councillors present, were told by officials that the Department of Transport had recently informed the council of changes to the procedures with the Athy distributor road. The invitation to tender documents has now been referred to the Department, with no clear timelines in place for proceeding to the next stage of the project. That is not good enough and totally unacceptable.

The provision of this road has held up the progress of our town for years. It is currently holding up a €3 million redevelopment of Emily Square in the centre of the town because a one-way system cannot go ahead without the new road. It is also holding up the provision of a 3.4 km cycle lane and over 7 km of new footpaths, due to be provided as part of the road. It is potentially holding up community playing fields in the town, so badly needed by the town's sports clubs, and is holding up safer access to the town's train station for some of the over 40% of the population who leave the town each morning to go to work.

Most importantly, this is about the future of a great town, one which has faced great obstacles in trying to attract industry and commerce against traffic delays of more than an hour most days, as traffic snarls trying to travel just 2.5 km through the town and over its only bridge. It is about the quality of life for parents who have no option but to wait in traffic for over an hour each morning trying to get their loved ones to school or those trying to get to work, adding to the stress of all involved.

The road, experts tell us, would reduce traffic in the town by 50%, provide over 3.4 km of segregated cycle track and 7 km of footpath and give rise, the council estimates, to €6.1 million in safety benefits resulting from a reduced number of collisions. Stage 1 of the tender process has been completed with, I am told, six contractors qualified to tender for the main works contracts. A series of advanced works contracts has been completed and I am told a significant proportion of land compensation packages have been agreed.

When will Kildare County Council be given the go-ahead to proceed to stage 2 of the tender process and issue the main works contract? Most importantly, when will the people of Athy be able to travel along their new road, use the proposed cycle lanes and footpaths and when will the traffic that has held back this town for too long almost disappear? When can those interested in investing in this town expect to see completed the almost €50 million worth of works which are dependent on this road and which have been promised, modernising this great old town and allowing it to breath again? The people of Athy cannot wait any longer.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I am happy to have the opportunity to respond to his question on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who, unfortunately, cannot join us. I am delighted to respond to the Senator. I served with his father between 2011 and 2016 and always found him an honourable public representative and a gentleman to deal with. I ask him to pass on my good wishes to him.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is a statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provision of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. State grants, where applicable, are intended to supplement the funding allocated to the maintenance and improvement of roads by local authorities from their own resources.

The national development plan, NDP, provides for the gradual build-up in 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 schemes. In this context, 12 regional and local road improvement projects were identified for development subject to the necessary approvals in the national development plan. The construction of a distributor route to the south of Athy connecting to the N78 is one of those schemes. That is positive.

The proposed Athy distributor road comprises an arterial link street incorporating footway and cycleway provisions of approximately 3.4 km in length and a new crossing of the River Barrow, the refurbishment of an existing railway bridge over the River Barrow and the provision of a new crossing on the Dublin-Waterford railway line.

The scheme objectives include a substantial reduction in traffic volume on the existing N78 through Athy, the provision of an alternative safer route in the vicinity of the town and improved accessibility. The proposed road development includes the provision of a dedicated pedestrian and cycle facility over its full length with connections to the Barrow Way and the train station. It is hoped that these facilities will encourage walking and cycling as a local means of transport and provide greater accessibility to public transport for people living in the surrounding housing estates.

As regards the current position, I am advised that the Department of Transport has provided significant financial support to Kildare County Council for the scheme to date and that this has facilitated the completion of the site and archaeological investigations and advanced contracts, including preliminary accommodation, culvert construction and utility relocation works. The land acquisition process is also underway.

I am also informed that the council submitted the contract documentation for the main scheme construction contract to the Department last week and is requesting approval to proceed to tender. The request will be considered once the contract documentation has been reviewed and I will bring back the points he raised today to the Minister on foot of this debate.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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It seems Senator Wall is on the right road.

Mark Wall (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his kind words. We hope we are on the right road. The problem I have, which the Minister of State might convey to the Minister, is that, in respect of the stage he announced, namely, documentation going to the Department, I have been informed by officials in Kildare County Council that this is a new stage. The council had not contemplated this stage in the building of the road.

I encourage the Minister of State to, as he said, bring this matter back to the Minister as quickly as possible so that he can give the go-ahead to Kildare County Council. We have waited 40 years for this road. I am sure if the Minister of State ever travelled to Athy he would have unfortunately been caught in the traffic that snarls the town each day.

I ask him to ask the Minister to allow the council to issue the tender documents to the six preferred tenders. At least we can then fast-track this road in the quickest time for the people of the Athy. I thank the Minister of State for his contribution today. I ask that he speak to the Minister on behalf of Athy and the people that live there.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Without question, there is a commitment on behalf of the Government to make sure this project proceeds. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. Despite the fact that available funding for strategic grants under the NDP was reduced in the 2021 budget, provision was still made to move the project in Athy forward. I am conscious that the overall scheme will cost €42 million. This Government and previous Governments have made an investment of €5.4 million in this project.Some €3.5 million was allocated to the council for this project in 2020. I do not believe all of that is going to be drawn down. There is a commitment there. I accept what the Senator is saying. Perhaps there is an additional layer that was not originally envisaged. The key now is from the Senator promoting it here, and I am conscious my own colleague Senator O’Loughlin has raised this issue previously as well, is that we make sure that this new layer in the process is dealt with as quickly as possible because money has been allocated. It is important that councils are enabled to draw down money that is allocated, that they spend that money, move it forward, build the road and open up the land for development because that is what we all want to see in our respective communities. I will certainly bring back the points the Senator raised to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and hopefully we can push this forward at an earliest opportunity.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I also thank the Ministers of State, Deputies Browne and Feighan, for coming to the House today. I thank Senator Wall and the staff here beside me who are so helpful to the Acting Chairmen. I also thank the ushers. We would all agree that the cleaners are absolutely everywhere. They are here, they are in our offices doing a wonderful job and they always meet one with a smile.

Mark Wall (Labour)
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I wish to be associated with your comments, Acting Chairman.

Sitting suspended at 2.42 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.