No ditching of road upgrades but Ryan keeps eye firmly on public transport and cycle plans

Several long-awaited road projects have been allocated funding to ensure they proceed as planned next year. But Transport Minister Eamon Ryan was also keen to stress his eye remained firmly on radically improving public transport as well as cycling and walking options. "The direction of travel has to move on this," he said, stressing that getting people out of their cars, and giving them the options to let them do that, was a key climate policy.

Transport is getting a total of EUR3.5bn this year, EUR1bn more than last year, of which EUR1.3bn will go on progressing packages for national, regional and local roads. The biggest projects to get support over the coming year are the N4 Collooney to Castlebaldwin stretch in Sligo, the N22 Ballyvourney to Macroom upgrade, the N5 between Westport and Turlough, the N56 Dungloe to Glenties route and the Dunkettle Interchange upgrade in Cork that connects the M8, N40 and N25. A pilot project introducing variable speeds on the M50 has also got the go-ahead to be rolled out along the motorway.

New detection equipment for traffic levels and speed, plus new overhead warning signs will be introduced to override existing speed limits when traffic controllers need to intervene to prevent jams building up. A wide variety of measures are to be funded to boost public transport and cycling and walking infrastructure. Mr Ryan said public transport would be kept moving no matter how hard Covid-19 hit the services.

He has allocated an additional EUR340m in public--service obligation funding to make up for loss of fares because of restrictions. "If we go from Level 3, where we can only have 50pc capacity, to Level 4, where we can only have 25pc, we will still run," he said. Some commercial bus operators will also be able to apply for temporary supports to keep their services running throughout the pandemic restrictions.

Funding is also pledged for BusConnects, MetroLink and the Dart expansion programme so that all three can be ready to apply for planning permission next year. Two new Dart stations and a new train control centre in Dublin will also be further developed. The planning process for BusConnects-type projects in Cork and Galway and for Luas-style infrastructure in the regional cities will also continue.

More investment in inter-city services will fund 41 new carriages, while further electrification of city rail services is to be supported through the purchase of what will ultimately be 600 new battery and electric carriages. Around 200 hybrid electric buses are also to be bought. Major emphasis is being placed on the low-tech transport options, with 200 walking and cycling routes to be developed, linking suburbs with town centres and towns with other towns.

The initiatives are part of the EUR1m-a day spending on cycling and walking secured by the Green Party in government formation talks. Two new cycling and walking bridges will be developed, one over the Suir in Waterford and one over the Shannon in Athlone. Support will increase for a number of long-route greenway projects which are at design stage.

An ambitious new 'Safe Routes to School' programme will also be rolled out, helping schools and local authorities to establish key walking and cycling routes to schools that will be marked out and segregated where possible. "If I said a year ago we would be spending 20pc of our transport budget on cycling and walking, people would have said that's not possible," Mr Ryan said. "But it is happening and we're recognising that it's critical to the Covid response.

"It gives people an option for when restrictions make it harder to use public transport and it's also giving life back to local towns." The minister also announced measures to help the taxi industry make the switch to electric vehicles, with grants totalling EUR15m to help around 750 drivers. Dedicated charging points for taxis will also be rolled out.

Grants for wheelchair-accessible taxis will also increase. Some funding is also to be made available to start trials of buses fuelled by hydrogen. This is expected to become one of the green energy options of the future when renewable electricity from wind and solar energy increases to the level where there is an excess.

The excess may be storable in large batteries but much research is under way into converting it into hydrogen for running heavy vehicles that are unsuited to electric batteries. Mr Ryan insisted there was no row with his Coalition partners over the large amount of investment still being pumped into roads. He said everyone "knew where he was coming from" and where his preference lay.

But he accepted the existing road infrastructure must be maintained and there were routes that needed upgrading and expansion. His long-term aim, however, was to develop alternatives so that people were not in a position where they had no choice but to own a car so that they could get to work and school and carry out other essential travel. The walking and greenway projects will act as both tourist attractions and practical commuting routes.

The 11 projects getting a funding boost over the coming year include: the Royal Canal cycling scheme, the Clontarf to Dublin city centre scheme, the extension of the Grand Canal greenway in Offaly and refurbishment of the Great Southern Greenway in Limerick.

Irish Independent

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