In the 1990s, it was depressing to be a road enthusiast in Northern Ireland.
Little progress was made on turning the Province’s key routes into dual carriageway/motorway.
The Newry bypass, on the Belfast to Dublin road, opened in 1996 as a single carriageway with four roundabouts and soon was insufficient to its role.
Back then if I drove between Belfast and Londonderry or Newry, en route to Dublin, I tried to banish any hope of swift progress, knowing I would get caught behind a tractor travelling at 25mph or a line of lorries at 40mph.
The only alternative to a dawdling pace was to try one of the most deadly motoring manoeuvres – overtaking on against oncoming traffic.
The busier a single carriageway road becomes, the harder it is to overtake, for two simple reasons:
First, obviously, there are fewer opportunities to get past when no vehicles are coming the other way.
Second, the greater the number of vehicles, the greater the likelihood that someone is driving at well below the speed limit, and so faster moving vehicles keep getting caught behind these slower ones, and lines of traffic build up behind them.
The road becomes frustrating and dangerous.
But over the last decade, starting around the time of the Toome bypass in 2004, major progress has been made on four of the most treacherous roads. They are:
• The A1 from Sprucefield to border (the single carriageway parts around Newry had an appalling fatality rate but were finally replaced in 2010)
• A4 Dungannon–Ballygawley (this perilous road was dualled in 2010)
• A26 Frosses Road north of Ballymena (this has just been dualled to the A44 Drones Road turn off to Ballycastle)
• A6 Moneynick Road, from western end of M22 (near Randalstown) to Toome.
Only the latter has not been dualled (see below for links about the court case that is delaying it).
But within a few years the Moneynick Road will also have been bypassed.
Few single carriageways are as deadly as those four. I think the upgrades have helped get Northern Ireland’s annual road death toll under 100.
There is more to do to improve our road infrastructure, but major progress is being made. The DUP-Tory deal further enhances that.
If Northern Ireland had as much high quality dual carriageway or motorway per square mile as an equivalent-sized part of France, it would have 150+ miles of such road.
The magnificent new Larne road pushes NI’s total to 125 miles and rising, .
A France-NI comparison is fair because the two countries have similar population densities.But the best French motorways have tolls, which has funded them.
The only two routes in NI that might have been sufficiently important, and had enough long-distance traffic, to sustain tolls were Belfast–Londonderry and Belfast–Newry, but it is too late for that now.
The DUP-Tory deal secures the York Street interchange. This is particularly important for movements between the M2, from Fortwilliam roundabout direction, and the Westlink/M1, which is usually clogged.
Delays mean that the benefit of the freeflowing Westlink (finished 2009) and the widened M2 (near Sandyknowes, 2009) is not fully realised.
My preference would be to link the York Street upgrade to the widening of the Sydenham bypass, leading on to a flyover junction at Tillysburn. This would then sort out access to Belfast City Airport, and would mean that traffic travelling around southeast Belfast would be more likely to use the existing ‘outer ring’ road.
But I accept that the Sydenham bypass is less urgent than the A5 upgrade, which is popular in the Northwest.
Consider, for example, living in Londonderry and commuting the 65 miles to the News Letter’s Carn office in Portadown (as colleagues have done). The A4 to Ballygawley made that drive easier. The A5 dualling will make it far more so.
The A6, linking the two biggest cities in Northern Ireland, Belfast and Londonderry, is symbolically important. Some of the route, such as over Glenshane Pass, has low traffic levels and dualling it is less urgent than the Moneynick Road or A6 Dungiven bypass.
I still hope the whole scheme gets built during this government, all the way to the A2, near City of Derry airport, bypassing cluttered parts of the route at Altnagelvin (the French would build a tolled motorway that arcs round Londonderry to Letterkenny).
There are many other worthy road plans: the Newry southern relief road, bypasses of congested towns (Magherafelt recently got one) and more.
Suggestions of mine include short dual carriageway bypasses of Augher, Clogher and Fivemiletown on the A4.
Also a project that – regrettably – is barely on the radar: a dual carriageway from the M2 at Moira to the M1 at Templepatrick, past Aldergrove.
The current road provides poor access to Northern Ireland’s biggest airport.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor