Saving lives more important than easing congestion: Hazzard

Chris Hazzard said other projects were more of a priority than the York Street interchange
Chris Hazzard said other projects were more of a priority than the York Street interchange

Saving lives will take priority over easing congestion when it comes to allocating funds for major road-building projects in Northern Ireland, the infrastructure minister has said.

Chris Hazzard was responding to further calls to start work on the £130 million motorway upgrade across the York Street bottleneck on the edge of Belfast city centre.

The minister again said he would endeavour to make the project happen but highlighted why other schemes, such as the upgrade of the A5 Northern Ireland section of the road between Dublin and the north west, were more of a priority.

“As bad as congestion is, and we absolutely need to tackle the growing congestion in and around the York Street area, there are people dying in their scores on roads such as the A5,” he said.

“In the last decade alone I think there has been close to 50 people killed in road traffic accidents on that particular stretch of road.

“So myself, when I come to strategic priorities, there could be nothing more strategic than saving lives.”

Mr Hazzard was asked during Assembly question time whether part of the £250 million infrastructure funding boost delivered in the Chancellor’s autumn statement would be spent on the York Street scheme.

The minister has already warned that a question mark hangs over the long-awaited interchange project due to a potential loss of key European funding as a consequence of Brexit.

The interchange would allow for the non-stop flow of traffic between the Westlink, M2 and M3 with the construction of a bridge and associated underpasses.

It was originally envisaged that around 40% of the construction costs would be sourced from the European Union, but Mr Hazzard has claimed the UK’s vote to leave the EU has cast serious doubt over that money.

While the Treasury has vowed to cover any EU funding shortfalls for projects signed off before Brexit, the next round of funding applications relevant to the York Street project does not open until 2018, so there is uncertainty whether it would be rubber-stamped before the UK exits the EU.

Mr Hazzard has said he is determined to rebalance an “infrastructure deficit” in the west of Northern Ireland, with upgrades to the A5 and the A6 between Londonderry and Belfast among flagship priorities.

Later in question time, the minister called for the Irish government to contribute £400 million of funding for the upgrade of the A5.

In 2011, Dublin withdrew its initial £400 million offer, and has since committed to a much-reduced outlay.

Mr Hazzard said: “I would ask them to consider putting all £400 million back on the table.

“This is a key infrastructure project that would open up the entire north west region.

“There is a responsibility here (Stormont) and in Dublin to do all that we can.”

The Sinn Fein MLA said the issue would be “top of the agenda” when he meets southern counterparts including Transport Minister Shane Ross later in the year.