Transport: Spinning the rusty wheels
Transport 21 may be the basic blueprint but each of the political parties are trying to put their own spin on just how they would tackle the country's traffic nightmare, writes Fearghal O'Connor.
Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have had 10 years, and the largesse of an unprecedented economic boom, to sort out Ireland's unfolding transport disaster. In some areas, significant progress has been made - namely the roads programme - but in public transport this Government has basically produced two disconnected Luas lines and a massive €34bn wish list called Transport 21.
Question any FF or PD candidate on transport issues and you will quickly be referred to this plan. If fully implemented, there is no doubt Transport 21 would provide a massive improvement but, to date, there is not enough evidence to suggest that we have finally learned to convert wish lists into reality.
Because of its catch-all nature (it includes many of the best ideas debated over the last decade), all the other parties' manifestoes either state they will implement the plan or, like Labour, decline to mention it. However, they still promise many of the projects it already contains.
The FG manifesto states that the party strongly supports the measures outlined in Transport 21, particularly its emphasis on significantly expanding public transport. But there is a major caveat. The biggest criticism of Transport 21 has been its vagueness on the costs of projects and FG promises that each will be subjected to rigorous cost/benefit analyses based on social, economic and environmental benefits.
"Such analysis will inform the priority and delivery timetable for the public transport projects outlined in the plan," states the manifesto. That is all well and good but if such analyses were to turn into another five years of soul-searching, belly-button-gazing and procrastination, Dublin in particular will come to a complete standstill.
Transport 21 will be the basic blueprint for the next Government, whatever its make-up. But there will be subtleties in its delivery, depending on what mix of parties is sitting at the Cabinet table.
The provision of integrated, high-frequency, rail-based mass transit is the best, if most expensive way, to solve Dublin's transport woes. FF is more or less sticking to outgoing Minister for Transport Martin Cullen's time frame for this. It would see a metro from St Stephen's Green to Swords, via the airport, and a metro line circling the western suburbs from Tallaght to Ballymun. The arguably more-effective interconnector tunnel linking Heuston and Spencer Dock, long-fingered in Transport 21, is to be accelerated. To this, the PDs add, in their manifesto, the vague ambition that commuters in large urban areas will not have to walk for more than 10 minutes to access some form of public transport.
The Green Party is much more ambitious than anybody else when it comes to rail transport, and its manifesto shows an intimate understanding of the potential of rail in Dublin in particular. Based on what is already set out in Transport 21, the Greens propose some very smart additions: Luas extensions to Finglas and Rathfarnham and a new east-west Luas line from Lucan to the Poolbeg peninsula; the extension of the metro north to Donabate and south to Beechwood where it could then share the existing Luas line; the extension of "metro west" eastwards from Ballymun to Baldoyle; and the immediate construction of the Navan rail line. Elsewhere both Cork and Galway would get Luas lines.
Labour is not quite as ambitious, although it does propose the extension of commuter rail services to the suburbs of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, as well as a new rail link between Athlone and Mullingar. All this extra traffic on the existing rails could conflict with its aspiration to ensure that all major inter-city journeys are faster by rail than by car. Labour also prioritises the construction of the interconnector, metro north and the Transport 21 Luas extensions but metro west is not mentioned.
FG, Labour's favoured partner, appears altogether less enthusiastic about rail transport, giving it only cursory mention in its manifesto. True, it makes reference to Luas, metro north and metro west, presumably as envisaged in Transport 21, but there is no mention of the crucial interconnector project. Indeed FG shows great enthusiasm for what it calls the "secret tunnel" - the existing Phoenix Park tunnel that allows trains run from Heuston to Connolly or the docklands. The suggestion that Kildare trains could run through this tunnel is a good one but there must also be the fear that FG could use this as a vastly inferior alternative to the interconnector.
By contrast, the Western Rail Corridor, popular with Enda Kenny's constituents but seen as a white elephant in the making by many rail and transport professionals, gets its own separate heading and an accelerated time scale to take it all the way from Ennis to Sligo. Only Sinn Féin is more ambitious, wanting to take the train onwards to Derry through Donegal.
Perhaps the most interesting area to examine in terms of buses is the contradictions between otherwise bosom buddies Labour and FG. If they do go on to form a government, this appears to be an issue that, without a major U-turn, could be irreconcilable. FG insists it will fully open up the bus market to competition.
"At least every three years the bus market will be opened up in tranches of 25%. We will similarly introduce bus competition in our regional cities and towns," its manifesto states.
With its close connections to Siptu, this is going to be a very difficult promise for Labour to live with. Its manifesto does not look beyond Dublin Bus - increasing its fleet by 50% and extending its network to major residential areas within a 25-mile radius of the city. Most controversially, Labour says it will introduce a E1 flat fare across the entire network. Far from FG's privatisation agenda, this proposal will involve a massive increase in subsidies to Dublin Bus. No doubt it would be popular with passengers and would attract extra passengers onto the buses. But is the price of a bus ticket really the reason that so many are prepared to stick to their cars and sit in endless traffic jams?
FF has been down the road of trying to tackle buses before - indeed Seamus Brennan effectively lost his job as minister for transport for annoying the unions (and therefore the Taoiseach) with proposals not even as radical as FG.
Not surprising, therefore, that FF is enigmatic on the subject, saying it will ensure "that the evolving regulatory regime will deliver service improvements by both private and public operators and that the needs of the consumer rather than the operator will be the prime driver of the marketplace".
That is probably code language for five more years of "you don't see a bus for 20 minutes and then suddenly three fly by.... all full".
Roads have created an interesting sideshow between two of the smaller parties, with PD leader Michael McDowell warning that the Greens intend halting the roads programme. While this was only one example of increasingly aggressive tactics from the party, there is at least some truth in it. Green transport policy is based on the spending parameters of Transport 21 but with spending priorities shifted in favour of public transport. Roads will lose but to what extent it is hard to know and the boost to public transport may make it worthwhile. By contrast, the PDs are pushing for a new outer orbital route to run from the M7, connecting the M4, M3, M2 and M1.
Apart from continuing the road-building programme, FF wants to explore an interesting new road funding initiative.
"Institutional investors and small savers would be given the opportunity to subscribe for an infrastructure bond," says the FF manifesto. "Initially this would be used to fund a rebuilding of the Dublin to Letterkenny/Derry road and the Dublin outer orbital route subject to feasibility and planning. An index-linked infrastructure bond would be issued by the National Development Finance Agency and set to mature in 50 years with a fixed coupon."
Structured as off-balance sheet financing, FF believes it would "allow the people of Ireland to invest securely in our future without adding to the national debt".
Interestingly, the Dublin to Letterkenny/ Derry road is a top priority for Sinn Féin. That party has a much simpler answer to paying for roads - it wants to remove all tolls (this is up there with its plans to renationalise Aer Lingus, Eircom and Irish Ferries in terms of practicality).
Labour too is greatly exercised by tolls, particularly at the M50 where it wants to "enable the Government to manage traffic at the Westlink Toll Bridge by lifting the barriers at times of heavy congestion and varying the tolls at different times of day."
One wonders if it is really the Government's job to be involved in the minutiae of traffic management.
All of the parties are in favour of some type of overarching regulatory authority to drive the changes and developments envisaged. FF, the PDs and FG place their faith in the Dublin Transportation Authority - already in its embryonic stages.
As part of its plans to reform local government, Labour says it will create city and regional authorities (chaired by directly elected full-time mayors) that will have a number of functions, including transport. They will have a role in "procuring, funding and operating joined-up public transport projects for their region, integrated timetabling and ticketing, development of new routes, linking land-use planning to public transport and managing traffic flow," the states the FF manifesto.
Labour also says it will link planning permission for residential developments to the provision of public transport and other essential services.
The Greens believe a national authority should be set up to plan and develop transport projects and assume certain functions of CIÉ. This authority would create a link between land-use planning and transportation policies, something that has been sadly lacking heretofore. "As a long-term target, we want to halve average commuting distances which have almost trebled over the last 25 years due to bad planning," the Greens state.
Although the SF manifesto has much to say on transport that is outlandish, it very sanely suggests that it would make it mandatory for public transport provision, including park-and-ride to be factored into all major housing developments at the earliest planning stages. If only such a rational and simple idea had been implemented 10 years ago, transport might not now be such an election issue.