A MASSIVE roads scheme was formally launched yesterday afternoon.
In a ceremonial gesture, Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy cut a sod of turf on the £100 million A8 widening scheme.
The single-lane stretch of road, connecting the northern edge of Newtownabbey to Larne, is being turned into a two-lane carriageway, and the speed limit increased from 60mph to 70.
The widening plan is estimated to save up to five minutes on the journey time between Coleman’s Corner roundabout (to the south) and Ballyrickard Road (in Larne).
But while the scheme has been broadly welcomed by some, others say it comes too late to halt Larne’s economic woes – which have included a decline in port traffic and the slashing of jobs at engineering firm FG Wilson.
And with the Department for Regional Development (DRD) causing upheaval to Belfast’s road network in a bid to improve public transport and discourage private cars, the decision to invest in the road-building scheme has been called “inconsistent”.
The whole scheme is expected to be complete in the spring of 2015.
In a statement yesterday, Minister Kennedy said: “Upgrading the A8 to dual carriageway will help grow the local economy and contribute to the wider economic development in Northern Ireland, both in the short term and in the long term.
“It will also help with the development of the Port of Larne, which is the second largest port in Northern Ireland.
“As part of the Trans-European Network, the A8 is a strategically significant European route, which provides an important east-to-west link, between Northern Ireland and Scotland, via the Port of Larne.”
The decision to go ahead with the scheme was taken in May, and although the department invited journalists to yesterday’s ‘launch’, the roadworks actually started in August.
But the boss of one freight firm suggested the scheme was a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Seatruck pulled its freight services out of the Port of Larne in spring of this year. That move had followed on the heels of Stena Line’s decision to end its Fleetwood service a couple of years before.
Seatruck’s commercial director Alistair Eagles said: “The road is a bit ironic in its timing now.
“Larne has probably got the lowest port volumes for many, many years, and with FG Wilson as well, is it money well spent at the moment? My view would be no.”
Could the lost business end up coming back to Larne?
“Possibly, but I don’t see it happening in the near future...
“I think road building schemes take a long time to get to the point where they put a spade in the ground.
“In the period it’s taken to get funding and planning, the situation on the ground has changed quite dramatically.
“I’m not sure if it is the best use of Northern Ireland’s money now.”
DUP Larne councillor Drew Niblock, who sits on the council’s public services committee, said: “The people of Larne have been wanting this for quite some time.
“Obviously with the decision of Seatruck to pull out this year and the downsizing of FG Wilson there is going to be considerably less traffic on these roads.”
At the moment, he said, the roads can still be very busy if, for example, there is a slow-moving tractor in one of the lanes.
“There’s the safety aspect of the whole thing,” Mr Niblock said.
“There’s been numerous fatal incidents on that single carriageway... commuters to Belfast overtaking has always been a problem. There are a lot of blind bends on that nine miles of single carriageway from Larne to Belfast.”
The DRD said: “The estimated improvement in travel time is approximately 35 per cent (up to five minutes) during peak hours and approximately 25 per cent savings (up to three minutes) during off peak times of travel.”
Declan Allison from Friends of the Earth said that the amount of traffic on the roads tends to expand to fill the space available, and that adding extra capacity to ease congestion is like “loosening your belt to deal with obesity”.
“It is inconsistent policy-making,” he said. “There’s a perfectly good railway line running the length of that route.
“Trains could travel faster, they could put more services on. It would cost them less money and be less hassle. They should be getting people out of cars and into public transport.”
But the recession has raised question marks over the funding for the scheme.
The Republic’s government promised a £400m funding pot to go towards road improvements in Ulster, some of which is earmarked for the A8 scheme.
So far £22m of the £400m has been paid to Stormont, split between the A8 and the A5 scheme in Londonderry.
But DRD said in a statement “the economic downturn has resulted in the Irish government deferring further funding for these schemes, with a commitment to provide £25m per annum in 2015 and 2016”.