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Transport Plan

Sligo Champion Editorial - Wednesday 9 November 2005

It would be no exaggeration to say that nowhere in the country is there more profound scepticism about the government's new transport plan than in the North West, and particularly in Sligo. The exclusion of the County Sligo section from the Government's proposed re-opening of the Western Rail Corridor during the ten-year euro34.4 billion 'Transport 21' investment plan has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon and has, rightly, been heavily criticised locally.

Nationally, too, the much hyped initiative has been received with deep suspicion. Many critics accuse the government of merely re-packaging measures already announced in a slick, pre-emptive strike in the undeclared general election battle which has now well and truly started.

Under the Transport 21 initiative, motorways are planned linking Dublin and the major cities by 2010. Of special interest to the Sligo region is a major route between Letterkenny and Cork, scheduled for completion by 2013. The current route will be upgraded to dual carriageway and 2+1 road type though it will be at least five years before even preparatory work starts on the project as the Government strategy up to then will be concentrated on completing the development of five major interurban motorways, linking Dublin with Belfast, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. It will not be a motorway - not even a full dual carriageway - if it's ever completed.

Massive expenditure is earmarked to tackle Dublin's chronic transport problems, with new train tracks and metro services in the pipeline, including a New York-style Grand Central Station. The unprecedented scale of the work will mean dreadful traffic congestion in the capital's city centre for almost a decade, experts predict.

Dismissing the plan's critics as a bunch of whingers, the Taoiseach said nearly euro9.4 million would be spent daily up to 2015 to bring the initiative to fruition. However, despite a broad welcome nationally for what the plan aspires to achieve, there are many who feel its primary short-term function is to launch the election campaign and provide the government parties with enough fodder to make extravagant promises. There is no breakdown of specific costs, details are in short supply, delays and cost overruns don't seem to have been factored in, and in any event, Finance Minister Brian Cowen made it clear everything depends on the economic situation remaining good. A get-out clause if ever there was one.

From a North West perspective, the Atlantic Road corridor through Sligo is to be welcomed, as is the reopening of the Western Rail corridor, but there is bitter disappointment that the rail link will stop at Claremorris, leaving Sligo out on a limb.

Whatever happened to the idea of tackling regional imbalance? How does it make sense to leave a dramatically growing centre like Sligo 'out of the loop' at this critical stage, and what does the decision say about the government's commitment to Sligo as a gateway city. The Western Rail Corridor is the only project in the ten-year plan that could have been started relatively soon. Here was an ideal opportunity for the government to show some serious commitment to the West and North West by getting on with the rail project. Instead, it will be spread interminably over ten years - with Sligo still left in a limbo at the end. The section of track between Claremorris and Collooney will be preserved in mothballs - but nobody is taking bets on whether a train will ever use it. Many people in the West are also puzzled by the ten-year timeframe put forward for achieving the Ennis-Claremorris section of just 68.5 miles, considering the 26 miles from Ennis to Limerick was renewed in eighteen months. And there is the question of whether massive EU funding will be lost to the project because of the delay.

Despite government claims to the contrary, there is no denying that the bulk of the plan is concentrated on the Dublin region. Massive amounts of money are earmarked for a myriad of projects there, designed to placate the capital's electorate. Meanwhile, the people of the West and North West will be forgiven for believing that when it comes to national priorities, they remain at the bottom of the list. When the transport plan is finally implemented - if ever - it will have widened the gap between east and west even further. For whatever else it does, this initiative will not be spreading euro34 billion fairly evenly across the regions, as promised by the government. In the final analysis, its primary purpose may be to simply get them re-elected.








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