Building new roads won't solve M50 traffic problem

 

The M50 will continue to be a motorist's nightmare until peak traffic levels are cut, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

The real reason there is so much traffic congestion on the M50 is very simple - it is carrying too much traffic. That's why plans to widen it and reconfigure the junctions were set in motion even before the last section of the motorway was opened last year.

But even after spending €1 billion on these works, the M50 will remain as congested as ever, as the National Roads Authority (NRA) has conceded. Because by then, in six years' time, it will probably be carrying twice as much traffic as the current peak of 100,000 vehicles a day.

Later this year at least 2,000 trucks trundling to and from Dublin Port will be added to the mix after the port tunnel finally opens. And then there's the proposed Ikea superstore next to the Ballymun junction, which will draw hordes of car-borne shoppers on to the M50.

The decision to locate Ikea in an already heavily congested road corridor merely compounds a history of bad planning that has left the motorway littered with huge traffic generators such as Liffey Valley shopping centre as well as miscellaneous retail and business parks.

As a result, the original aim in 1971 of providing a national bypass of the capital for those travelling between, say, Sligo and Wexford has been swamped by commuter belt traffic.

The M50 has become the main street of Dublin's North American-style "edge city".

Its planning was atrocious. The "C-ring" motorway, as it used to be called, was built in four phases, each of which had a different name - Western Parkway, Northern Cross Route, Southern Cross Route and South Eastern Motorway - and took nearly 20 years to complete.

The design was sub-standard, even for a motorway projected to carry 45,000 vehicles a day. Instead of free-flowing "clover-leaf" junctions, which are standard internationally, the M50 got peculiarly Irish "roundabout interchanges" - to save money on land acquisition.

These roundabouts soon had to be supplemented by slip roads to facilitate left-turning traffic.

Traffic lights also had to be installed because drivers here were unaccustomed to the rules of the road for roundabouts, although no motorways elsewhere have traffic lights.

Now the four running lanes are to be increased to six and each of the interchanges remade, in spaghetti-junction style, to cater for the huge volume of traffic; the new overbridge proposed for the Red Cow is reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's crossed-swords bridge in Baghdad.

The West-Link bridge was part of the first phase. In the cash-strapped mid-1980s, with the IMF breathing down our necks, it seemed to make sense to get the private sector to build the bridge and a 3.2km stretch of motorway between Palmerstown and Blanchardstown.

It was George Redmond, then assistant Dublin county manager, and Pádraig Flynn, then Minister for the Environment - both later central to the planning tribunal - who signed off on the deal with the late Tom Roche, founder of National Toll Roads plc.

Under this deal, NTR was to recoup the investment of £29 million (€38 million) over 30 years by charging tolls on its strip.

After it opened in March 1990 a paltry 7,500 vehicles a day were crossing the bridge, not much more than half of the break-even figure of 12,000 a day.

As further phases of the motorway were finished over the following 15 years, traffic levels rose exponentially in tandem with the booming economy and the relentless sprawl of Dublin.

NTR was now coining it from tolls, and the original West-Link bridge needed to be replicated.

That was when the State, through the National Roads Authority, could and should have intervened to buy out NTR's interest. Instead, in 2001 it signed a new agreement under which NTR built the second bridge for €24 million, with the aid of a State subsidy of €6.4 million.

Minister for Transport Martin Cullen has responded to the public clamour over delays at the West- Link toll plaza by pledging to take NTR out of the equation - even though this would now cost at least €600 million - and introduce a system of "open-road" electronic tolling.

Mr Cullen's move is another example of political panic, on a par with predecessor Séamus Brennan's reaction to a belated discovery that the Tallaght Luas line would cross two slip roads at the Red Cow interchange; fortunately, his idea of putting Luas on stilts was binned.

Buying out NTR would mean forgoing an estimated €936 million in revenue from corporation tax, commercial rates, VAT and a steeply rising share of the receipts from tolls over the next 15 years, according to a report by DKM Economic Consultants, commissioned by NTR.

That sum would be nearly enough to fund the entire M50 upgrade, based on its current projected cost.

DKM also calculated that it would eclipse the estimated €616 million that would accrue to its clients in toll revenue between now and 2030, when the original deal expires.

In other words, the divvy-up of future toll revenue breaks down 60-40 in favour of the State.

It would be insane for the Government to give up such largesse, merely for the populist cause of turning NTR into a whipping boy for the failure of the M50 to perform its proper role.

Whatever happens, tolls will continue to be necessary. An Bord Pleanála made its approval of the upgrade last May conditional on the adoption of "demand management measures" - code for congestion charging - within three years of the scheme being completed.

Meanwhile, work is proceeding on the construction of an Outer Ring Road, or "M50 bypass".

This will provide a new link between Tallaght and Lucan, but may not continue northwards into Fingal. There are also tentative plans for another ring, crossing the Liffey at Leixlip.

But with yet more motorways due to feed into the M50 - including the controversial M3 - any relief is likely to be temporary. The "solution" now being canvassed is an Outer Orbital Route, running from the M1 at Drogheda towards Navan, Naas and possibly even round to Wicklow.

In effect, more roads are being thrown at the traffic problem. The M50, as it stands, has already cost around €1.6 billion. Another €1 billion is to be spent upgrading it, plus some €70 million for the partial Outer Ring Road and a further €1 billion for the proposed Outer Orbital Route.

What about public transport? According to Mr Cullen, the proposed Metro West line linking Tallaght with Clondalkin, Blanchardstown and Ballymun, will also help to relieve the M50. But the bizarre thing is that there isn't even a bus service between these places at present.