Plan for Dublin Bus overhaul faces major roadblocks as opposition mounts
Proposed redesign leaves some areas of Dublin without direct link to city centre
A setion of the crowd at the public meeting in Portmarnock. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart realised that there was trouble ahead for the BusConnects reform plan when he started getting an unusually high number of emails and phone calls from constituents during the dog days of August.
So many came that Lahart abandoned a summer break in west Kerry and drove home to cope with the concerns from local residents fearful that their route would be impacted.
He was not alone. Noel Rock, a Fine Gael TD for Dublin North West, who yesterday called on the National Transport Authority to extend the public consultation period for the plan, was erecting posters in his own constituency advertising a public meeting on the bus plan, when the scale of public concern became evident to him.
TDs often organise public meetings just to have a handy excuse to hang posters outside of election time – such advertisements are permitted – but never expect significant turnout at the subsequent event. It was different this time.
“Back in July I was putting up posters and two people stopped me in this street and asked if they could invite their neighbours to the meeting,” says Rock. “Having expected 30 people, we got 100.”
That was just the start. Lahart estimates that about 1,200 people attended meetings he organised in his Dublin South West constituency over a 2½-week period.
Thousands more have attended meetings organised by individual politicians and the National Transport Authority (NTA), which is responsible for the €2 billion upgrade.
The BusConnects project is a key part of the Government’s Project Ireland 2040 plan, and it is also envisaged that it will be extended to Cork and Galway, once Dublin is under way.
It has two major elements in Dublin. The first is the redesign of the bus network, which would see the existing system replaced with new routes built around seven cross-city, high-frequency spines.
New orbital routes will also be introduced around the city, and measures such as a single ticket charge for one 90-minute journey across bus, rail and Luas have been widely welcomed.
However, the most contentious elements include some areas of greater Dublin being left without a direct link to the city centre, and concern that increased transfers between services will affect the elderly and disabled as well as causing greater worry for parents who send their children to school on public transport.
The re-routing of services has also led to concern, and a debate on a Fianna Fáil motion on BusConnects in the Dáil this week was almost a roll call of every route in the capital, and how certain areas would be affected.
One example was Aengus Ó Snodaigh, the Sinn Féin TD for Dublin South Central, who says that “under BusConnects no buses will go through the heart of Drimnagh”.
The NTA opened a public consultation process on the network redesign in July, which led to the huge public interest. It closes next week and an updated plan will be published in the new year, and will then be opened for further consultation.
Consultation on the second aspect, which will see infrastructure upgrades on 16 key routes, begins next month. This envisages the compulsory purchase of some private gardens to widen roads for buses and cyclists.
It is widely agreed that the bus system in Dublin needs improvement to meet current and future demand, and those outside the political sphere suspect BusConnects is being used as a platform for candidates ahead of local elections, and possibly a general election, within the next year.
David O’Connor, a senior lecturer in transport planning at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), says there are some public representatives trying to make BusConnects work, but others “getting on the bandwagon and rattling the cage”.
“There are representatives out there who are possibly getting a lot of political gain for it. They are calling meetings and the meetings are stuffed. That is a problem for people who are trying to get the project through.”
However, O’Connor says there is a case for introducing community bus services alongside BusConnects to ensure that those who need to go, for example, to hospitals are still able to do so.
Rock says it is not the case that BusConnects provides a platform for political promotion, and says there is a “proper, legitimate grassroots type of support against this”.
“I think there is a way of improving the bus network without upending the existing network,” he says, adding that the envisaged method of hopping between buses to get to your destination will double the chances of people getting stuck on their commute.
During the Dáil debate, Fianna Fáil – via both veiled and blunt criticism – was mentioned by other deputies as using the issue to promote its candidates. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan accused Fianna Fáil of wanting to throw out BusConnects, then “reverse and start all over again”. Minister for Transport Shane Ross accused Lahart and Fianna Fáil of being in favour of the proposal initially.
Lahart rejects such charges and says BusConnects would be more acceptable if the infrastructural upgrades to bus lanes around Dublin were in place first, rather than the current plan of changing the network first. He says his party is in favour of most of the plan, and describes the proposed high-frequency spines as “great”.
“The attempt to connect people is disconnecting people and there is just no argument about that. It isn’t about an unwillingness of people to make connections. You’d sell it much easier, if you said the seamless, fully segregated corridor to the city is in place, it’s in place, it is already there.”
In response to numerous questions in the Dáil, Ross also insists BusConnects is not preparing for further privatisation.
Fine Gael debate
The issue was also a matter of debate at the Fine Gael parliamentary party this week, with almost all Dublin representatives speaking.
Fine Gael Dublin Bay South TD Kate O’Connell has accused Minister for Transport Shane Ross of being “disinterested”.
O’Connell also claims the plan is lacking in local knowledge, citing the fact that buses will no longer go down Bushy Park Road in Terenure, where Multiple Sclerosis Ireland has its national care centre.
“I don’t see any evidence of any sort of local knowledge of consideration of local issues, like those things I pointed out. As public reps, when we see obvious omissions or things that weren’t considered, I get concerned about the whole plan.
“Because it is so complicated and you have to know the buses, it is a bullshitter’s paradise as well. Because the maps are so complicated, it is easy to whip up fear.”
In a hyper local electoral system, such local concerns will always draw the attention of politicians. A discussion at Cabinet this week on the Fianna Fáil motion also saw some Ministers hold forth on services and routes in their constituencies.
There are different views on how dangerous it is for Government politicians. One Opposition TD, who has been outspoken on BusConnects, says, politically, it is not “catastrophically big”.
“It can be managed, but Fine Gael just shit themselves and are over-sensitive.”
Yet politicians will never look at an issue that attracts thousands of people to usually poorly attended meetings in the draughty corners of community halls and not see electoral gold, or catastrophe.
“With the local elections in six months’ time, in each of the estates in every constituency, you can feel 200, 300 votes leaking through your hands,” says one TD. “It is the guts of a ‘keep our buses’ candidate in every ward in Dublin and could cost you in a general election, if it is marginal.”