Tuesday, 15 November 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for taking this Commencement matter. Unfortunately, the Minister for Transport was unavailable, which is disappointing. I wish to highlight the matter of the extension of the N4 from Mullingar through Longford and on to Rooskey and County Leitrim. The Government launched the renewed National Development Plan 2021-2030 in October last year. This was the largest national development ever plan delivered in the history of the State, valued at €165 billion, with a particular focus on priority solutions to strengthen housing, climate ambitions, transport, healthcare, jobs growth in every region and economic renewal for the decades ahead. The Tánaiste stated that we needed to anticipate what the Ireland of 2040 will look like, what our jobs will be like and how we will travel and live.
With a rapidly rising population, Ireland needs to invest in big infrastructure. If we were to look at a map of Ireland and at the road infrastructure, in the context of the national development plan referring to balanced regional development, we would be struck by the fact that the only region not being serviced by a proper motorway or dual carriageway is the north west. I am referring to counties Westmeath, Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Donegal and Sligo. This entire region is not being serviced. While a significant amount, in the hundreds of millions of euro, is being spent on the works on the N5 from Castlebar running towards County Longford and on the N4 from Sligo eastwards, there is a missing link. The project went to preferred route stage in 2008. It was later removed from the national development plan. It was included once more when Project 2040 was announced by the previous Government. In December 2021, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, announced it had no money available to continue with the project. We understand that a significant number of families, including farmers and landowners, have been greatly affected by these delays and not knowing what will happen to their family land, homes, etc.
We received a reprieve earlier this year when a great deal of pressure came from public representatives. Money was found by TII to continue the project and identify an emerging preferred route. Based on the work that has been done, I expect this will be announced in quarter 1 of 2023. My understanding, though, is that this is where it ends. An increasing number of lives are being lost and serious injuries suffered on the current routes. Since 2008, we have had more than 20 fatalities, 34 serious injuries and 218 minor incidents.
The N4 transportation solution would support the Government's goal of balanced regional development by improving accessibility to the midlands and north west. A strategic corridor would be provided for reliable and safer road-based public transport in rural Ireland. It would also strengthen the tourism sector by linking Ireland's Ancient East with the Hidden Heartlands and the Wild Atlantic Way. It will not be possible to provide opportunities for active travel in towns and villages through the provision of dedicated walkways if we have continued congestion in a certain number of towns. On the way down west we can see this in Ballinalack, Rathowen and Newtownforbes. These may be small towns but they account for major bottlenecks.However, the reality is that we have a large number of landowners and householders who are in a state of suspension since 2006. That is 16 years and counting. They are unable to make decisions on what they can do with their property.
This particular project is a crucial one for the island of Ireland in the context of the Government's ambition for the national development plan. It is likely to take between ten and 15 years to develop if sufficient multi-annual funding is made available, and if coupled with the usual judicial reviews which seem to be commonplace in this country. This needs to be prioritised.
I mentioned earlier that if one looks at a map of Ireland, there is an entire region that is not serviced with that. I understand money has to be part of projects from 2026 onwards. However, my understanding is that if this project does not continue to planning permission stage, we will have to go back to the start again, which we already have. We will have wasted multi-millions of euro. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, needs to make sure that funding is in place for this project and that the national roads office based in Mullingar will continue the process over the next couple of years and bring it down. The route and all the issues would be ironed out and compulsory purchase orders and planning permission put in place. If it has to be delayed due to funding for a year or two, so be it. However, we have a route and our planning permission. The landowners know where they stand and we do not have to go back to the start again. However, balanced regional development in the north west, and all those counties I have named, are entitled to the same opportunities as the rest of the country.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. The Minister for Transport has responsibility for overall policy and Exchequer funding for the national roads programme. Once funding arrangements have been put in place with Transport Infrastructure Ireland under the Roads Acts 1993-2015, and in line with the national development plan, NDP, the planning, design, improvement and upgrading of individual national roads is a matter for TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. TII ultimately delivers the national roads programme in line with Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework and the NDP.
In the new NDP, launched in October 2021, approximately €5.1 billion is earmarked for new national road projects until 2030. The funding will enable improved regional accessibility across the country, as well as compact growth, which are key national strategic outcomes. The funding will provide for the development of numerous national road projects, including the completion of projects which are already at construction stage and those close to it, as well as the development of a number of others. Exchequer funding under the new NDP will also facilitate continued projection and renewal of our national roads infrastructure, including motorways, in line with Government policy.
The N4 Dublin to Sligo road is a national primary route which connects to the N5 to Westport and the N6 to Galway and Athlone. It is a critical strategic corridor from Dublin to the north-west region and Border counties. The project is 54 km in length and connects Mullingar in Westmeath to Roosky in Longford. The existing route is a single carriageway road that passes through, or close to, several settlements, including Ballinalack, Rathowen, Edgeworthstown, Longford and Newtownforbes. Through the provision of reliable transport infrastructure, the project would improve connectivity between Dublin, Sligo and the north west. The proposed project would enhance regional accessibility and improve road safety along the route. This project is intended to support the economic performance of the local and wider region through the provision of improved transport infrastructure, while minimising the environmental impact.
The project has reached the route options selection phase. Initially, TII was unable to provide an allocation for this project in 2022, given the level of funding available for major road projects. However, funds became available early in the year and it was possible to provide a reallocation in order to progress the options selection phase. As a result of this, the options selection process was reactivated. Studies were subsequently undertaken in relation to various environmental disciplines and additional appraisal was carried out to take account of the national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, which was published in December 2021. It is expected that an emerging preferred route corridor will be published in quarter 1, 2023, and that this route options selection process will be completed in quarter 2, 2023.
I thank the Minister of State. She said that it is a critical strategic corridor for the north west and critical to our national development plan. However, the reply states that funding is in place to complete the route option selection process by quarter 2. Therefore, it will be stalled. I ask the Minister of State to tell the Minister that this needs to be prioritised. TII needs to make the funding available for that office, based in Mullingar, to continue its work on the N4 and bring it to a further stage, to a planning permission stage, and to compulsory purchase orders. It is not a significant amount of money. The vast majority of the funding is in the construction stage. We need to bring it to that stage. I am not hearing good soundings and I do not think that is acceptable. It is a vital piece of infrastructure for the entire midlands and north west and it needs to be prioritised. It needs to be brought to a planning permission stage, so if it is stalled for whatever reason, including a lack of funding, at least we will not have to go back to the start and start spending tens of millions of euro again, which we have already done. It needs to be done and needs to be prioritised. TII, in its funding for 2023, needs to set aside money to the National Roads Office in Mullingar to continue that process over the next 18 to 24 months.
I thank the Senator. I will bring back to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, exactly what the Senator said. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, he really acknowledges what the Senator said, that it is critical. It has so many other nodes feeding into it. It is single lane carriageway. There is also a health and safety risk there. We are half way through a process and it needs to be completed and left to a particular standard. I will bring that back to the Minister, Deputy Ryan.