Roads expert: Delivery of full A5 upgrade is no longer feasible and by pushing ahead politicians risk ending up with nothing at all

MLAs were clearly angry last month as they had their say on the much-delayed A5 dual-carriageway scheme in the Stormont assembly.

Tuesday, 11th May 2021, 3:05 pm
Updated Tuesday, 11th May 2021, 3:18 pm
The A5 is dangerous — people die on it each year — and it needs to be improved. But stamping out opposition to the upgrade project is not sufficient to save it

The project, which would see 85km (53 miles) of new road built between Derry and the border at Aughnacloy, has now been in planning for 14 years, despite £80m having been spent and nothing built.

Frustration was particularly directed at the Alternative A5 Alliance, a confederation of landowners along the route who are opposing the scheme. While the AA5A’s repeated legal challenges have undoubtedly delayed the project, its problems are deeper.

Firstly, the cost of the scheme has soared, from £560m in 2007, to £844m in 2009, £1bn in 2016 and £1.2bn today. It was only approved on the basis of Irish government promising to stump up almost half of the estimated £844m cost, leaving Stormont to come up with £444m. But with a total cost now of £1.2bn, Stormont would have to come up with at least £800m to complete the road — almost equal to the total estimated cost a decade ago.

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Wesley Johnston at the M3 Flyover in Belfast in 2014 holding his book about motorway plans around the city. Wesley a roads expert who runs the Northern Ireland Roads Site Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

As the Public Inquiry inspector recently noted, there is considerable doubt that the executive will be able to find this amount of money.

Secondly, these cost escalations have eroded the economic case. The recent Public Inquiry report revealed that they have risen so much that – with the exception of the Omagh and Strabane bypasses — none of the scheme now actually makes economic sense.

One of the primary reasons for building the road is to improve the economy in the west, but we now know that even with these benefits, it will cost more money than it will generate. Stewards of public money cannot ignore such considerations, especially with sums of this scale.

Finally, environmental legislation is now so onerous that the Department faces an almost impossible task to meet their obligations. The law requires that the documentation for new roads must be both, a), up-to-date and, b), comprehensive, but in fact these two requirements stand in tension. The more comprehensive a document is, the longer it takes to produce.

The more up-to-date it is, the more detail it needs to leave out. Both deficiencies can lead to successful legal challenges as we have seen, causing yet more delays. There is no reason to think that this cycle will not continue ad infinitum.

The A5 is a congested and dangerous road — people are dying on it every year — and it needs to be significantly improved. And the West needs investment. But contrary to what was said by some in the assembly, stamping out opposition to the A5 project is not sufficient to save this project.

But it can still be salvaged. How? Firstly, the minister must accept that the project is now unaffordable over any reasonable timeframe.

Next, the minister must accept that some sections of the road will not be built — including, at the very least, the Ballygawley to Aughnacloy section and probably both phase 1a and 1b too.

Then focus on a deliverable project to construct dual-carriageway bypasses of Omagh and Strabane, and perhaps the stretch in between. For the rest of the road, work to identify smaller-scale schemes that could be implemented more rapidly, which would focus on reducing the number of serious crashes.

By doggedly pressing ahead with a scheme that is now clearly undeliverable, politicians risk ending up with nothing at all. Hard decisions need to be made — but is there sufficient political will?

• Wesley Johnston is a roads expert who runs the Northern Ireland Roads Site

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