Frank McDonald: Kilkenny is a city divided over bridge and access scheme

‘Those attending this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival should know they are visiting a wounded place’

The new Kilkenny bridge and access road  under construction, with St Canice’s Cathedral in the background.  Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

The new Kilkenny bridge and access road under construction, with St Canice’s Cathedral in the background. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

Everyone attending this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival should know they are visiting a wounded place, such are the deep feelings of hurt locally over the construction of a new bridge as the first phase of our premier medieval city’s highly contentious central access scheme (CAS).

Stand on John’s Bridge – or, better still, Green’s Bridge – and you’ll see work under way in the river Nore. Heavy machinery has been used to drive piles deep into the riverbed as foundations for piers to support the new bridge, with predictable damage to the Nore as a wildlife habitat.

Those opposed to the CAS tried everything to halt it. They lobbied councillors, held protest marches, got more than 7,800 people to sign a petition, backed a belated High Court challenge to the scheme and even initially physically obstructed bridge contractor John Craddock Ltd.

There was a juggernaut in motion, and no way of stopping it. Worst of all, in the eyes of opponents of the CAS, was that Craddock’s €4.14 million tender for construction of the bridge was approved just five weeks before the local elections in May 2014.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that Joe Crockett used his powers as Kilkenny county manager to sign a formal “letter of intent” to award the contract on April 16th last year. Shortly afterwards, he then took early retirement and the contract was confirmed on June 9th by director of services John Mulholland.

Campaigners against the CAS wanted the newly elected council to review the scheme, noting that several outgoing councillors who favoured going ahead with it had lost their seats. Even long-serving Carlow-Kilkenny Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness came out in favour of such a review.

But the die was cast. As in the case of Wood Quay in Dublin, where a contract for the first phase of the Civic Offices had already been signed before a new council was elected in 1979, Kilkenny councillors ran the risk of being personally surcharged if the bridge contract had been cancelled.

When it came to the crunch, a special meeting of the new council on July 26th, 2014, decided (by 18 votes to five) to proceed with the CAS as soon as possible to “harvest the benefits of the project” and minimise disruption to the community. There was no alternative under the circumstances.

Devastated

Opponents of the scheme were devastated. As they see it, it will allow cars to become more dominant in Kilkenny, compromising its medieval heritage and physically separating St Canice’s Cathedral from the rest of the town centre. Also, they feel the priority should be to complete the ring road.

That the scheme represents “old thinking” in terms of traffic in towns was underlined by Kilkenny County Council’s external auditor, Dr Seán Brady, in a report on the project last August, which confirmed that it had its origins in a 1978 traffic and land use study of Kilkenny by Brady Shipman Martin.

This led to Dean Street being doubled in width during the 1980s, with a new terrace of mock-traditional buildings erected on its northern side. The controversial new bridge is designed to link up with this widened street, thereby providing a new route for traffic seeking access to the town centre.

Proponents of the CAS have argued that it’s essential for the redevelopment of the former Smithwick’s brewery on the west bank of the Nore, where the “Abbey Creative Quarter” is being planned, as well as the former mart site on the east bank.

But in neither case is a new road essential.

In his report, Dr Brady noted that the proposed inner relief road – rebranded as the CAS in 2008 – had been an objective of successive Kilkenny development plans since 1980. With a benefit-to-cost ratio of 7.16 to 1, it represented “excellent value for money” and was approved by An Bord Pleanála in July 2009.

His report also noted that the missing northern section of Kilkenny’s ring road, costing “in the range of €40 to €50 million” – more than double the CAS – has a lower benefit-to-cost ratio of 3.66 to 1, and securing funds for its completion would be “very challenging in today’s economic environment”.

Dr Brady found that public consultation “played a significant role” in the CAS process, that views of members of the public “were taken into account and carefully analysed”, and that these had “greatly influenced the evolution and development of the scheme” – a claim hotly disputed by opponents.

Only two significant changes were made. First, in compliance with a request from An Bord Pleanála, the highly obtrusive cable-stay bridge originally proposed has been replaced by a simpler structure. And second, the gable wall of a house on Vicar Street with medieval elements is being retained.

Pinch of salt

Claims by the county council that the CAS will reduce traffic on Dean Street by 20 per cent must be taken with a pinch of salt, as the new bridge would feed into it. Similar claims made in Sligo before the N4 was savagely driven through it turned out to be untrue; traffic in its centre is worse than ever.

In Sligo, as in Kilkenny, there is now a demand for an outer ring road to take through-traffic out of the centre, rather than building “inner relief” roads to bring more cars in, merely because that’s been the plan for nearly four decades. Kilkenny deserves better and should complete its ring road as a priority.

The Kilkenny Arts Festival runs from August 7th to 16th

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