A fresh start for the A5 – but at what cost?

Disclaimer: being a strong public transport advocate does not stop me from enjoying the open road, gliding effortlessly past slower traffic [You don’t say – Ed] Indeed – but we all have too many things to do that cannot conveniently be done by bike, bus or train…

Mick has already considered the opportunity cost of the £75 million promised by the Irish Government for the A5 scheme from Newbuildings to Strabane, although I think that money could buy several Narrow Water Bridges with a bit of cash left over.  I therefore spoke to my friend and local expert Wesley Johnston.

Wesley reminded me that the last estimated cost of this part of the scheme was £170 million at 2012 prices, which means that the Executive will have to put up a further £95 million (at least) to make this scheme happen.  If, as promised by Sinn Fein, the Ballygawley-Omagh scheme proceeds at the same time, the Executive will have to put up a further £160 million, for a minimum total of £255 million.

Add to that total the tendency of construction prices to rise (due to methodology changes, the most recent figures of 5.7% for new road construction are for the year to June 2014) and we could be looking at approximately £300 million, or almost a year’s capital budget for DRD for this scheme alone.

A further disclaimer: in principle, I’m definitely in favour of the A5 scheme.  However, the opportunity cost worries me.

The key problem is that unless the Executive gives extra money to DRD to fund the A5 schemes, other schemes will have to be deferred.  Schemes that have the potential to make a big difference to badly congested areas.

And here I run into trouble with those who think that the east of the province has received a ridiculously disproportionate amount of funding for infrastructure – not an unreasonable opinion, because funding has certainly been Belfast-centric.

The reason for this is of course well-rehearsed.  Congestion, which happens to impact on more people and for longer in Belfast.

Will building a dual carriageway for the A5 help long-distance traffic make good progress on the open road, gliding past slower traffic?  Certainly.  It will be fantastic news for travellers on that road, especially hauliers relying on clear roads to move goods around the country.

However, £255 million also happens to similar to the combined cost of the York Street interchange and providing a dual carriageway from Randalstown to Castledawson.  If the Executive doesn’t provide extra money, other schemes will have to be deferred.

The accident record of Randalstown-Toome is atrocious.  The York Street interchange is dysfunctional – traffic for the Westlink tails back on the M2 for most of the working day and in both peaks in a way that doesn’t happen in the other direction.  Additional traffic uses city streets to avoid the York Street junction to save time, making it more difficult for motor vehicles, cyclists, public transport users and pedestrians to get about their business in Belfast.

Even if these schemes were safe, then what does the £255 million get taken from?  The repurchase of the old Waterside railway station?  New bus and coach purchases with impacts on reliability of public transport?  Routine resurfacing of roads and upgrades of junctions? (capital because they restore value to an asset already written down to nil, where maintenance stops deterioration)  NI Water?  It’s a situation that will get worse, as the proposed cut to corporation tax will exacerbate the funding situation.

So, very strongly, while the A5 scheme is a extremely worthwhile scheme (if a little premature with the N2 being well below the intended standard), if we have to choose between it and schemes which will have a potentially far greater impact on congestion and accidents, it’s the wrong scheme.

[Roll on  the day when we can afford a new A5 as well as sorting out York Street and Randalstown-Castledawson? – Ed] Well, yes, and only as part of a holistic solution that makes public transport and cycling a realistic alternative – or the only sensible choice – for more people, but what are the chances of that?

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