Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Road Projects

The Minister of State, Deputy Breen, is very welcome.

The Minister of State is very welcome to the Chamber. I ask that funding be provided for the construction of a new bridge at Cloongullane, just outside Swinford on the N26, and that work commence on the planning of an orbital route for Ballina, County Mayo. If one looks at north and east County Mayo, one will see there is a serious road infrastructure deficit in the area, and there is a reason for that. The roads to which I refer are the N26, a national primary road, which connects with the N59, a national secondary road. The reason for this road infrastructure deficit, as history will show, is that we could not get planning permission for the N26, stage 2, over the line, and this goes back in 2010. It would have gone from Mount Falcon, just outside Ballina, to Bohola. If we had got permission, I would not be asking the Minister of State for funds for the bridge and to begin the orbital route.

I refer to the environmental designation. The River Moy is a special area of conservation and in 2010 An Bord Pleanála deemed the road to be over-designed and it wanted to protect whooper swans. Since then, I am glad to say that TII and the council went back to the drawing board and decided that they would try to do it in segments, and not on the same scale. I was not in agreement with that because a proper road into the area is required, but we now have planning permission for Cloongullane, again after much delay over environmental designation. Since 2010, approximately €10 million has been spent on planning on a road and not a sod has been turned. That is pretty serious, and it is because of environmental designation.

Wearing his other hat, the Minister of State will know that north Mayo is quite a hub for foreign direct investment, FDI. We have Coca-Cola, Hollister, Lionbridge and a number of other multinational companies which are very much part of the community. Not only do they provide local employment, but they source whatever they require locally. They are very established in the community.

The N26 was the number one priority road in the whole of County Mayo but because of the refusal by An Bord Pleanála, it went into the waste paper basket. That does not take from the case that we need it, and that case still stands. The issue is environmental designation.

I refer to the gravity of the situation and the serious deficit in infrastructure. Cloongullane Bridge was not built in the last century but the century before. It is absolutely shocking. Two vehicles cannot pass on it. The bridge has been clipped by the HGVs that travel this road to and from the multinationals, including from Swinford. Something has to be done. This road should not be part of the national primary network. Traffic on the N58, which feeds into Foxford, would have been alleviated by the 2010 plan. Speed limits on the road have been reduced because it is such a winding road. There is a road safety issue here.

In terms of this area thriving economically and socially going forward, there is a lot of wherewithal there. There is a very good chamber of commerce in Ballina and there are traders' groups in Foxford and Swinford. There is can-do attitude there, but the road cannot be built without funding.

I hope the traffic bedlam at Cloongullane Bridge and going into Ballina every day of the week will be addressed and that we will see construction at Cloongullane this year and the beginning of the orbital route for Ballina.

I thank the Senator. I call the Minister of State.

I thank Senator Mulherin. She has been an advocate for infrastructure during her time here in the Seanad because she has raised so many issues in relation to industry and small businesses with my Department. I can see her point that having critical infrastructure in place is really important.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. In his role, the Minister, Deputy Ross, has responsibility for overall policy and securing capital funding in relation to national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, the planning, design and construction of individual roads is a matter for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Project Ireland 2040 is the long-term overarching strategy to make Ireland a better place for all its people. Within that context, the national development plan, NDP, has been developed by the Government to underpin the successful implementation of the new national strategy framework. This provides the strategic and financial framework for TII's national road programme for the period of 2018-2027. In the ten years covered by the plan, more than €11 billion will be invested in the overall road network. The NDP identifies two categories of national road improvement projects. The first category covers projects to advance to construction subject to the satisfactory outcome of the project appraisal and development consent approval process. The second category relates to projects at pre-appraisal and early planning stage which have been assessed with a view to developing a pipeline of suitable projects for development.

Overall, TII considers that taking steady-state of PPP commitments into account, the indicative NDP budget will allow the projects in the first category to be progressed, and a pipeline of projects taken through early planning.

However, it would not be possible to take all the pipeline projects through the development consent process or to construction stage within the timeframe of the NDP. The advancing of projects in the second pipeline category will therefore be subject to prioritisation within the overall national roads programme and funding.

I refer to the new bridge on the N26 at Cloongullane, Swinford. The preferred route for the proposed N5, N26, N58 Turlough to Bohola and Swinford to Mount Falcon road improvement scheme was adopted by Mayo County Council in July 2015. However, the Minister understands that TII informed Mayo County Council that the scheme could not proceed to phase 3 design at the time due to funding constraints and the requirement, as I have just mentioned, for TII to focus on the progression of those schemes that have been identified for development during the period of the capital investment plan 2016 to 2021 and subsequently the NDP. TII continues to focus on these key objectives. In the interim, TII agreed that the N26 Cloongullaune Bridge realignment should progress as a separate minor improvement scheme to improve the safety of this substandard section of the route. The scheme involves the realignment of a 1.8 km section of the N26 at Cloongullane bridge and a new bridge crossing over the River Moy. Mayo County Council submitted the scheme and the associated compulsory purchase order to An Bord Pleanála in November 2016. The oral hearing into the proposed road development was convened in March 2017 and An Bord Pleanála confirmed approval for the scheme in December 2018. Technical consultants procured by Mayo County Council are currently undertaking the detailed design of the scheme and preparing the tender documents. Mayo County Council has commenced the pre-qualification process in respect of the tender process and expects that construction will start on this project in quarter two of 2020.

The preferred route for the Ballina road project, which is the N26 and N59, was identified in 2006 and adopted by Mayo County Council in 2007. The project was then suspended and remains so. Mayo County Council has proposed a minor improvement scheme, the N26-N59 Ballina bypass phase 1, which comprises carriageway works of 2.1 km, with 1 km of new road construction and 1.1 km of road widening. That would link the N26 with the N59 and in doing so bypass the town of Ballina to the south west. The scheme is being considered as one of a number of minor projects that may commence appraisal, planning and design next year. Regarding major new road projects in County Mayo, the Minister is pleased to advise that the Government approved the awarding of the construction contract for the N5 Westport to Turlough scheme on 15 October. A letter of acceptance issued the following day. Mayo County Council and the contractor formally signed the contract on 29 October 2019. This project involves the construction of 20.3 km of dual carriageway from Westport to east of Castlebar and a 2.5 km single carriageway link to the N59 secondary road.

I thank the Minister of State and welcome the investment in the major scheme, which is the N5 Westport to Turlough route outside Castlebar. The reality is that it means nothing to north and east Mayo, although it is welcome. I am asking for modest investment. The Minister of State will agree that the N26 is both a vital artery and the orbital route around Ballina. If it is not done, there will be further tailbacks on the way into the town. These projects should be prioritised, especially since we have HGVs that cannot get in or out of the town, coming and going from our multinationals. This should be a concern. These multinationals have formed a Mayo industries group. They have pointed out the severe deficit in the road. We should be listening. They are serious employers in the area and there would be knock-on benefits for our own indigenous businesses too. This infrastructure is beyond overdue. With his business and enterprise cap on, I ask that the Minister of State make the case to the Minister that he see the significance of and the obvious prioritisation required in respect of these schemes.

I certainly support Senator Mulherin with regard to road improvements around Ireland. It is important that roads in regional areas, not just national secondary roads but regional roads, are upgraded to ensure that they meet the areas covered in Project Ireland 2040 and Future Jobs Ireland, which is very important for us. I will bring Senator Mulherin's concerns back to the Minister. His role is to make policy. It is up to TII, in conjunction with Mayo County Council, to ensure that priority is given to these roads in light of the economic activity in the area, which the Senator outlined, and the many multinational and indigenous companies operating there. It is important that we look after these companies and the employees of the companies who have to drive to work each day. Road safety is a priority for all of us as legislators and also for the Government. The worst section of the N26 route has been addressed by means of the N26 Cloongullane Bridge alignment project, which is currently being progressed as a minor works scheme. There is a traffic calming scheme in the village of Bohola on the N5 but it is important to complete the whole loop. That is all subject to funding. I will certainly bring that to the attention of TII and the Minister.

Bus Services

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking this matter on behalf of the Minister. The Minister must to make a statement on the need for funding for the installation of wheelchair-accessible bus stops in west Cork. West Cork is a huge geographical area. The frightening statistic is that there are only two wheelchair-accessible bus stops in the entire west Cork region, one in Kinsale, which was opened last year, and one in Skibbereen. Both of these bus stops were put in place on the back of local initiatives. One was relocated by a local engineer in Kinsale into the car park. He built it appropriately so that it became wheelchair accessible. The other, in Skibbereen, was made by transition year students coming together to raise funds to alter the bus stop because one of their classmates needed access to a bus and could not get it. That is the history of the two wheelchair accessible bus stops in the entire west Cork region.

There is substantial awareness of the need for wheelchair-accessible bus stops. Health and safety measures mean that we cannot have access to these buses until proper stops are put in place. If one looks at the geography of the area, from Kinsale to Allihies, it is a frightening distance, with over 82,000 people living there. There are only two bus stops in the region and it is shameful. I have been calling for a funding stream to be made available and working with the west Cork Wheelchair Association to ensure that we get a line of funding. We noticed this year that the National Transport Authority granted funding to east Cork for the upgrade of 15 bus stops in the east Cork region. This morning, we are looking for that funding stream to continue. The west Cork region will hopefully be considered next year. A programme of works could be put in place. In our assessment, between 18 and 20 bus stops are required to ensure that the west Cork region is sufficiently served. We have people who cannot go to work or school, or even to doctors' appointments because of the lack of wheelchair accessible bus stops.

Wheelchair-accessible bus stops give people the opportunity to use public transport, which reduces carbon. Pressure is put on families, communities and support groups, which are really picking up the slack because of the lack of basic core infrastructure. The other issue is cost. Some people are paying €160 for a round trip to go to Cork University Hospital from west Cork for doctors' appointments because there is no access to bus stops. Considering all those issues, a holistic approach is required. Local organisations have done great work.

I mentioned the west Cork wheelchair association. Physical infrastructure, such as bus stops, and resources need to be put in place. Patrons want to be active and independent - "independent" is a very important word - and they need to be able to be independent. We need to ensure a funding stream is put in place for next year, as well as ensuring that the west Cork geographic area is considered as a priority and receives the investment required for bus stops.

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this issue. I know his interest in the area of disabilities and he regularly raises the matter, and quite rightly so. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, who has responsibility for policy and overall funding for public transport. Under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, the National Transport Authority, NTA, has strategy responsibility for promoting the development of an integrated and accessible public transport network. Approximately 86% of the Bus Éireann regional intercity coach fleet is wheelchair accessible, and this figure will increase as the coach fleet is replaced.

I am advised that the operation of a wheelchair accessible bus service requires the provision of wheelchair accessible buses and wheelchair accessible bus stops. The wheelchair accessible coaches in the Bus Éireann regional intercity fleet are fitted with either an external hydraulic lift or a ramp. While all bus stops in regional cities are wheelchair accessible, that is not the case in regional and rural areas.

In urban areas, the use of low-floor buses with wheelchair ramps means that almost all bus stops are accessible for wheelchair users without the need for modifications to footpaths. These low-floor buses are not generally suitable for use in non-urban areas. At the current time, most services in non-urban areas are delivered by high-floor coaches, which use wheelchair lifts rather than ramps. I am advised that a large flat area of adjacent footpath is required to operate the wheelchair lift, typically 3 m wide and 3.5 m in depth. However, most bus stops in rural areas do not, as Senator Lombard knows, meet those requirements.

To address these infrastructural legacy issues, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport funds a programme of accessibility improvement grants, managed by the NTA, to upgrade existing and older infrastructure and facilities, including the installation of accessible bus stops in rural and regional areas of Ireland. The Minister, Deputy Ross, has secured €28 million in funding for the retrofit programme for the period 2018 to 2021.

I am advised that in 2018, the NTA engaged engineering designers to undertake accessibility audits of towns with a population of more than 5,000 that have bus stops serviced by high-floor coaches. It identified 43 towns that required accessibility enhancement to accommodate two stops, that is, one in each direction, for coaches, giving a total of 86 new accessible bus stops. I understand that, subject to local authority agreement and input, the NTA plans to have accessible stops in all 43 towns on public service obligation routes by the end of 2021.

Senator Lombard raised the issue of accessible bus stops in Cork. The NTA has advised that it is engaging with Cork County Council on the provision of wheelchair lift accessible stops. I am advised that Cork County Council awarded the contract to complete works at Carrigtwohill, Midleton, Castlemartyr and Youghal. Works have commenced in Youghal and all works are expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2020. The NTA hopes to expand this programme to additional locations during 2020 in co-operation with Cork County Council. Furthermore, it is planned to supply 38 low-entry coach-style vehicles to Bus Éireann in the first quarter of 2020. The allocation of those buses to routes in County Cork is an operational matter for Bus Éireann.

The NTA also has national responsibility for integrated local and rural transport, including the management of Local Link services, which are managed by 15 Local Link offices, including Local Link in Cork, on behalf of the NTA. One of the key objectives of Local Link is the integration of its services with other public transport services, including Bus Éireann services. Approximately 80% of the fleet in use on Local Link services is already wheelchair accessible, and the target is to have at least 95% fully accessible trips by the end of next year. Such services generally operate without the need for accessible bus stops.

I thank the Minister of State. He mentioned the programme being rolled out in Carrigtwohill, Midleton, Castlemartyr and Youghal. It should be extended to other regions, such as west Cork, and it is to be hoped there will be a budget for that. I am trying to push for the programme in east Cork, which is delivering 15 bus stops, to have funding for 2020 so that it can be expanded to west Cork and deliver for the six major towns in the area.

I agree with Senator Lombard that the programme is very positive. It commenced, in conjunction with Cork County Council, in east Cork and the Senator is 100% correct that it is only appropriate that it is extended. Bus Éireann, the NTA and Cork County Council will probably do that in the very near future. It all depends on funding, but it is a positive start. As I said in my reply, the NTA hopes to expand the programme to additional locations in 2020, in co-operation with Cork County Council.

Given that Senator Lombard is in such close contact with councillors in Cork, perhaps he could ask them to table a motion at local level to supplement what he is doing at national level. He is doing very good work to ensure he highlights this issue in the Seanad. It would be useful.

I will bring back his genuine concerns to the Minister, Deputy Ross, and the NTA to ensure they can complete the programme and install wheelchair accessible bus stops in west Cork locations. It is a good area for industry and tourism and many people in the area use public transport. I support him in this. He should continue to work with his colleagues at local level to ensure there is a co-ordinated approach and that they work in collaboration to ensure bus stops are installed in west Cork in the next round of the programme.

Sitting suspended at 11 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.