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Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 9 Mar 2021

Public Consultation on the National Development Plan (Resumed): Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, and for Transport

No apologies have been received. The purpose of our meeting today is to examine the national development plan with a view to making a submission to Review to Renew, the public consultation element of the national development plan. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister for Transport and for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his officials, Mr. Garret Doocey and Mr. Dominic Mullaney. They are all most welcome to the Dáil Chamber.

All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of that person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members joining the meeting remotely that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex, which obviously includes the Dáil Chamber. In this regard, I ask all members who are participating remotely, prior to making their contribution to the meeting, to confirm they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.

I invite the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to make his opening statement.

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to discuss the review of the national development plan, NDP. I offer my apologies for being unable to appear two weeks ago due to an extended Cabinet meeting. I understand the committee had a very informative meeting with the Secretary General and officials of one of my Departments. I am pleased to be present today to discuss the NDP further with the committee.

To pick up on some of the observations made by the committee two weeks ago, such as that the NDP will represent the most significant NDP since the foundation of the State, there are certainly key features of the new NDP that will differ from previous ones. The most striking feature is that it will be built around the national strategic outcomes in the national planning framework. In taking this approach of focusing on long-term outcomes, there are potentially many pathways to attaining these outcomes. What makes this NDP review particularly challenging is that we have found ourselves in a state of flux so soon after the NDP was published and we are now in a period of rapid adjustment caused by many different converging factors.

Within this period of change, there are opportunities to alter what we do and ensure we do things better. Now is the appropriate time to step back and look at our overall strategy in terms of achieving these long-term strategic outcomes. As the Secretary General of one of my Departments indicated two weeks ago, the focus on the national strategic outcomes rather than projects gives us the flexibility, if necessary, to adjust, change tack, reprioritise or accelerate certain aspects of investment.

As was discussed during that meeting with regard to the sectoral strategy aspect of the review, the Department has decided to base its NDP submission to the NDP review on the draft national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, rather than its predecessor, the strategic investment framework for land transport, SIFLT. In considering whether this is the right approach, first, I absolutely agree with the committee that the NIFTI approach must go to public consultation at the earliest possible opportunity in order that the consultation process takes place prior to the conclusion of the NDP. I think the draft NIFTI is a very thorough and thoughtful piece of work. I hope the public will engage with it in an enthusiastic and robust debate, and I look forward to the public consultation phase from this perspective.

The draft NIFTI identifies four unranked priorities, namely, mobility of people and goods in urban areas, enhanced regional accessibility, protection and renewal, and decarbonisation. These priorities reflect and support the national strategic outcomes pertinent to transport. The draft NIFTI is the product of several years of research and analysis and is designed specifically to support attainment of the national strategic outcomes in a way the SIFLT was not. The completion of the research and draft NIFTI meant that the Department was able to use up-to-date research and analysis in considering how it can stay on track to meet its NDP objectives as part of this review. Failing to do so would have led to a significant gap between the ambition of the Government, which is to align resources to attain national strategic objectives in an evidence-based manner, and the Department, as it would have involved failing to use detailed research and analysis now available to it to test at a theoretical level our current strategies against the national strategic objectives.

My intention is to negotiate funding for the Department which results in a very significant capital allocation that supports each of the identified strategic priorities. The NDP review will assist in ensuring that investment is broadly aligned in support of the national strategic objectives and, if that is not the case, what needs to change.

On the issue of compact growth ambitions, the evidence demonstrates that the most productive strategy the Department can pursue when the goal is sustainably to absorb a rapidly growing population is to expand sustainable mobility capacity within major cities and towns. There are two main investment strands in this regard. First, in gross investment terms, it will take a significant share of total funding to improve public transport capacity within cities and towns because interventions are required in cities and towns that are complex and typically involve attaining mass transport capacity in built-up residential areas. Second, it is vital we fund active travel on a significant scale due to its manifold social, economic and personal transport benefits, especially over short distances in urban and rural areas.

Enhanced regional accessibility is also identified as a key priority. As the committee noted two weeks ago, there are significant opportunities to improve regional connectivity for rail and I am on the record with regard to the significant untapped potential in this context. In terms of roads, we can be far more ambitious in how we approach road design. Although we have made significant progress in building a national road network, traditionally we have not systemically evaluated multi-modal options during the planning and design phases of road construction. We have all too frequently treated public transport capacity on roads as an afterthought and left active travel nowhere. This must be addressed. Although the advent of electric vehicles, EVs, will, over time, tackle carbon emissions on roads, EVs on their own will not solve road congestion or the phenomenon of induced demand and may contribute to continued urban sprawl. These unintended consequences are not in anyone's interest, least of all those who live in badly located housing estates disconnected from nearby urban centres, road users stuck in traffic or residents of neighbourhoods plagued by rat-running or pass-through congestion.

In designing road networks, we need to take all these factors into account.

In order to allow time for questions, if the Chairman agrees, I will conclude my opening statement.

I thank the Minister.

I thank the Minister. There is some concern that the shift in focus towards public transport will have a detrimental impact on a number of earmarked road projects. What is his response to that concern? I want to flag some important road projects in my area, one of which is that between Kilmoon Cross and the Rath roundabout. Despite being in level 5 lockdown, traffic volumes in the area are at 85% of pre-Covid levels. I have spoken to engineers and transport officials in Meath County Council who have analysed this project at length. What they propose will have active traffic measures and will tick a number of boxes in terms of the national strategic objectives. There are concerns that the shift in focus will deprioritise projects such as this. I emphasise the importance of the Navan rail project, an issue I have raised previously with the Minister, and of the Slane bypass. I would like to hear the Minister's thoughts on those projects.

At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Action earlier, we heard from a number of witnesses, some of whom raised the need for a change in governance structures, suggesting there may be an opportunity to review the roles of the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. Are our current structures are fit for purpose? Is the NTA sufficiently resourced to deliver on the ambitious programme of work the Government has for it? Does the Minister have plans to address that?

The overall roads programme in the existing national development plan, NDP, is very significant, with a huge variety of roads. Many of them may have been committed in the existing NDP without the funding necessarily being clearly available. We will have to face choices in the prioritisation of a variety of transport options because if we were to build everything that is in design or in various plans, the budget would be many multiples larger. The allocation has to be based on good transport principles, such as tackling the worst blackspots and keeping safety first and foremost. As I said earlier, they should be projects that help us deliver on the national planning framework and the national strategic objectives set out within that.

It will be both roads and public transport. The programme for Government commits to favouring public transport by a ratio of 2:1, having already allocated a percentage of the overall budget to active travel. There will be a switch in priority towards public transport and I am upfront about that, but it is not that we will be stopping the roads programme. Far from it, there will still be significant expenditure because I expect the capital envelope to be maintained, if not increased. At this time, we have a critical need for investment in transport infrastructure, so I expect that an enhanced budget will emerge from the NDP process that will see a variety of projects developed.

Is the Minister talking about road projects?

Both road projects and public transport.

The example the Deputy raised is good. According to the details I have on the road project between the Rath roundabout and Kilmoon Cross, it is estimated to cost between €60 million and €70 million and is yet to go to preliminary business case approval, so it is not at the detailed design stage. The cross-section is a 6 km road, as the Deputy will know. It is relatively early in the selection process.

I imagine that the Navan rail line is somewhere similar. It is in the middle of the review of the greater Dublin strategic area. I think the Deputy knows my views on it. I believe the Navan rail line is the correct sort of investment not only for County Meath and the people of Navan but also for the strategic development of Dublin. That sort of development, particularly where it is backed up by compact-led development and applications for housing within easy access of a station, is what will work best for everyone, not least young families who might want to set up there. That is the kind of housing that people will want to locate close to.

I remind the Minister that he is using members' time.

The Deputy's example was good in the context of what we should prioritise.

I might return to the issue of the NTA and TII. We have to review their respective roles continually. TII has great skill at delivering projects. As an example, at a recent meeting we discussed the area of active travel and TII might take a stronger role in that, not just in terms of the regional design offices it now has but also through the likes of the greenway programme. An agency such as that, with skill and expertise in the deploying of assets, might well have a role in a project like that.

I thank the Minister for appearing before the committee. We have been doing a large volume of work in recent weeks. The clock is against us, so the Minister might return to my questions in the allocated time. The most important thing is that the national development plan review will see strategic infrastructural programmes delivered, moved out of the doldrums and achieved and realised. That is what everyone is hoping for. We need to see this as a means of addressing regional imbalance, which has become ingrained in this country for many decades. The national development plan should enable some of the infrastructure that will be delivered to rebalance and recalibrate that.

Other mechanisms, too, facilitate that kind of regional rebalancing and they come within the Deputy Ryan's Ministry. I would like to ask about the post office network. Since the start of this year, 14 or 15 of them nationally have closed. One of them, in Broadford, was in my constituency, a 190-year-old post office, and there have been many more. It is not just a rural problem; 13 post offices in Dublin have handed back their keys. The Minister's party and other parties in government, including my party, are considering ways to free up the post office network and to give it some viability going forward, including through the examination of a public service obligation option to sustain it in part with €17 million per annum, or through a community banking model like Sparkasse, or Kiwibank in New Zealand. The Minister might consider that and respond to it. Furthermore, will he consider intervening, as Minister, in the post offices that have closed during Covid? An Post has used the Covid stick to close post offices that should not have closed at this time.

My final question relates to Shannon Airport, which is strategic and key to the Minister's Ministry but, overall, to the west and mid-west. Will he enlighten us on the appointment of a chairperson of the board and what process will get under way? There have been calls for sector-specific supports for aviation. It will be one of the last sectors to recover post Covid and will need more than just the supports that have been in place up to now, such as capital investment in national regional airports. It will need something more long term, an adrenaline shot, to keep it going. Will the Minister respond to that?

He gave the green light to the Limerick northern distributor road last month. Are there plans to progress phase 2?

I agree that better regional balance is the key to the national planning framework. I keep coming back to the fact that my first priority is investment in the public transport infrastructure in Limerick, Cork and Waterford. It is critical that the cities outside Dublin have the ability to scale up to counterbalance the excessive development of the east coast versus the south west, the north and the north west. That has to be central to any NDP review.

The post office network is critical to our country. That is even more true now that we are seeing significant disruption in the banking sector not only because of Covid-19 and other events, but because an underlying change is occurring. The development of mobile banking is undermining traditional banking models. We recently saw the unwelcome news that Bank of Ireland is to close 100 of its branches. Ulster Bank is in real difficulty, closing and, in effect, being taken over. I believe that the post office network is a critical bulwark against that trend and we need to protect and maintain a centre in our communities where a whole range of services, including financial and State services, are available. The barrister Turlough O'Donnell did some good mediation between the postmasters and An Post three or four years ago. That consultation set out a good path towards trying to protect and revive as many post officers as possible. I believe we need to follow that course. There are range of options. I am familiar with the Sparkasse banking model and have met representatives of the German banking industry who espouse the model on numerous occasions. I believe it is a key option and opportunity. The attractive thing about the model is that it specialises in lending to SMEs and small businesses in sectors such as farming. That is where that model does well in Germany. The key characteristic that I like in the model is that the funds raised as deposits in an area are spent or lent in that area. It involves real banking expertise and I would love to see that model here.

My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and I are consulting Deputies, civil servants and Government colleagues from the area on the issue of Shannon Airport. An unfortunate series of events meant that the person we had in mind for the chairmanship had to step back. I regret that. We did not want to make an immediate decision after that but it is important that we get a chairperson in place. The Minister of State and I, working together, hope to be able to progress that matter in the coming weeks. We decided that it was best to listen to advice from various Deputies and Senators in these Houses rather than charging ahead and making an immediate appointment.

I am conscious of time and I apologise if I am not covering all of the issues about which I was asked. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and I met approximately 16 representatives of the aviation industry last Friday and had a good, two-hour meeting. The sector is in real crisis across the world but the concerns are particularly significant here because, as an island nation, we are exposed. The key thing the industry wants is to get back flying. We must be careful in that regard by following health advice and ensuring that we protect our country. However, if get the vaccine roll-out right, if it works as we hope and we get the numbers of infections right down, that will be the key to getting the aviation sector back. First and foremost, we must address the public health crisis.

I thank the Minister for coming before the committee. I also want to ask about the appointment of a chairperson for the board of Shannon Group. It is a key appointment for the mid-west region because Shannon is the engine of growth for our region. I welcome the Minister's comments that he has listened to Oireachtas Members. I, as chairperson of the Shannon Oireachtas group, wrote to the Minister and asked him to step back and consult. He offered, through his offices, a meeting with our group. I know that he is under pressure and our original meeting had to be postponed but I would like it to be rescheduled fairly soon. I have also written to the Minister about a number of chambers of commerce in the region that want to engage. It is important that we get the right person in the job, someone who understands aviation, tourism, business and, most important, the region. The chairperson must be able to engage with stakeholders. I think there is a vacuum between the airport and the region that needs to be filled. We need the proper person in that role.

I welcome the fact that the Minister and the Government have backed a €150 million loan to Aer Lingus. I know that the Minister is currently in talks with Aer Lingus and I encourage him to conclude them. I would like to impress on the Minister the need to stitch in connectivity as part of the talks. If the State is doing a deal with Aer Lingus, it must be on the basis that there is connectivity for Shannon that includes key routes such as those to London Heathrow, New York and Boston. Those routes are critical. The Minister must also insist that the workforce and base in Shannon are protected.

My colleague earlier raised the issue of the post office in Broadford, County Clare. Will the Minister state whether he supports a public service obligation for the An Post network, particularly for post offices that have been lost during the Covid-19 pandemic? The service would be protected with funding of €17 million annually. The closure of some bank services presents an opportunity to offer more services through the postal network.

I am glad to hear the Deputy's views on the chairmanship of the Shannon development project. I am nervous about broadening it out too much and having meetings with a variety of different actors or agents because, to be honest, sometimes it is better to listen and talk to people directly. That is what the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and I have been doing. It is critical that Shannon Airport returns to being a centre for regional development. It is not only the airport because the industrial estate and heritage sites are also critical.

Will the Minister also talk about the heritage sites?

I beg your pardon?

Will the Minister talk about the heritage sites?

The Deputy is asking about Shannon heritage sites.

Heritage sites will be an important part of development. They may be matters where local authorities take on a role.

Might the Office of Public Works, OPW, have a role to play?

The OPW is an option. My instinct is that the local councils might be a better home for the development of heritage centres but that is the sort of issue that a chairperson and the board will have to decide and act on.

The Deputy is right that connectivity for Aer Lingus to the likes of London Heathrow and the east coast of the US is key. My sense of how this will work is that the key will be that we start seeing the development of the airport in connection with the region. What type of tourism must we think about? What is the future of tourism in the mid west and the west? How will Shannon service that? We must think and use this as an opportunity for change. We have built a tourism sector in which people fly into Dublin for two or three days, spend a day going to Clare, half an hour at the Cliffs of Moher, and return to Dublin. That is what a lot of tourism is about. If we try to revive Shannon Airport without changing that type of tourism model, it will not work. We need bigger thinking about the types of tourism and promote longer-stay tourism in the west, south west and mid west, particularly. Shannon Airport needs to feed into that and promoting those areas as green tourism destinations would work best.

The Minister for Finance negotiated the loan from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, to Aer Lingus. In fact, ISIF negotiated it itself, as an independent body. It is a commercial loan and the Department of Transport does not have direct involvement although, obviously, we are aware of the developments. I understand that Aer Lingus is now funded and will be able to ride out the immediate crisis but no one knows for sure. The virus has kept changing, twisting and turning and we will have to be vigilant but, for the moment, that loan has helped Aer Lingus manage its way through what has been a difficult period.

The Minister might conclude on Broadford post office, which was the Deputy's final question.

They are not small questions. The key thing might be to look at other State services that we could develop through our post office network. Perhaps we could look at other finance instruments, investment, savings or other instruments. The real strength of the post office network is that post offices are trusted intermediaries in local communities. If I correctly recall a Dáil debate, the family in the post office in Broadford have been there almost 100 years or some such time. Multiple generations of that family have been well regarded and trusted in the local community. We can use that trust for the delivery of public services. Each Government Department must look to see what other services we could distribute through post offices to broaden the business case.

That is what is going to make this work, including public services.

I thank the Minister. I call Deputy Ó Murchú, who has four minutes.

I start with the issue of the acceleration of the national broadband plan, NBP. I thank the Minister and his officials who have contacted me regarding the issues raised by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, concerning the streamlining required in the context of a planning permission permits system. I would appreciate it if the Minister would update me on the progress being made on getting that done. We all obviously accept that acceleration is necessary in the NBP. In the meantime, has the Minister or anybody in government engaged with other commercial entities on stopgap solutions, for want of a better term, that could be offered to people who might be waiting for three to four years, and possibly longer, for the roll-out of the national broadband plan? I am talking about options such as a possible satellite solution. A proper Government initiative may need to be put in place. I would like the Minister to comment on that matter.

I welcome the Minister's support for the possibility of a community banking facility. Have there been any conversations at Government level about such an initiative? In the same vein, have there been conversations in government and with An Post to ensure that the requisite capacity is available within the post office network to deal with the new banking requirements the network will experience because of the unfortunate closure of Ulster Bank and also of some branches of Bank of Ireland, such as in towns like Dunleer?

I have brought up cross-Border planning previously. In fairness, the Minister's officials who have spoken to us previously have given us decent enough information concerning the A5 and the Narrow Water bridge being in play in this regard. Some of my Sinn Féin colleagues, in the context of the memorandum of understanding, MOU, on the strategic alliance between the Louth local authorities and Newry and Mourne District Council, have also said that some of the responsibility for the issues in this regard lie with the Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon. I would like the Minister to give me an update on this topic as well.

The national broadband plan is critical infrastructure. It was obviously affected by the onset of Covid-19 last year and also during the first months of this year. There have been a variety of difficulties, including with contractors coming over from the UK and workers being out because they have tested positive or have been close contacts of someone else who has tested positive. Development has in some ways been hindered by those difficulties. However, more than 178,000 premises have been surveyed as of 15 February. In addition, since 25 January just about every main broadband retailer and provider has been keen to resell these services. Premises in Cork, Cavan and Galway have been connected, with Limerick to follow in the coming months.

Turning to stopgap measures, there have been examples of where it has been frustrating for people regarding networks. A neighbour may get a high-speed broadband connection, but then for a variety of network reasons the next house down is not included. I understand that some of the operators are looking at those exceptional cases, where some extension might be possible. On the satellite aspect, I will be honest and state that in recent times I have not heard of or been approached by developers looking at such satellite options. It has always been a possible option, but I think the difficulty lies in the speed of and delays in connections.

It is the download speed which is the problem.

I would not rule out that option, but what we are doing with the national broadband plan, and what Eir and SIRO are also doing with their respective networks, in putting fibre or equivalent connections into homes will be the winning technology in the years to come. Fibre technology has advantages over satellite which means it will be the solution in the end.

Does Deputy Ó Murchú have a concluding question?

Yes, I asked if there had been conversations regarding community banking and ensuring that post offices have the facilities to deliver on the services which will be required in the wake of developments in Bank of Ireland. My other query concerned cross-Border planning and Narrow Water bridge in particular.

I apologise for not having addressed those issues for the Deputy.

An Post has had a long relationship with AIB in providing some over-the-counter services and it now has a partnership with Bank of Ireland. Reiterating what I said to Deputy Crowe earlier, a good example of what An Post has done is its work with Scottish and Southern Energy, SSE, Airtricity. The advertisements can be seen on television for the wraparound service to improve homes. The lending facility and energy expertise is provided and An Post puts all the elements together as a product. That is the sort of product in which I think An Post potentially has real expertise. It is also the sort of product which would easily merge into community banking or, as I mentioned earlier, the Sparkassen model. The provision of loans to the value of €10,000 to €50,000, and upwards when it comes to the commercial sector, is where we could have real expertise.

Regarding cross-Border planning issues, I have had several meetings with Minister Mallon and we have discussed at length the Narrow Water bridge project. As soon as it is possible to travel, we want to commit to visiting Carlingford. There are different views of and options for this project. One option is a foot and cycling bridge. The area around Carlingford and the Mourne mountains is stunning for that type of tourism and I think it has great potential. Car traffic may also be a factor because of the major motorway bypass going in on the eastern side of Newry. The existing road from Omeath to Newry is a country road which is not very wide, so if we approached this project in respect of it involving a major car road there could be implications then regarding upgrading the entire road network around the Carlingford peninsula. I do not know if that is what we want in the long run. Instead, there may be real potential here for us to do something which is iconic, spectacular and sustainable.

I thank the Minister. I call Senator Dooley.

I thank the Minister for his presentation. Starting with the issue of post offices, there has been talk about Broadford post office, which has closed, as have others. We are all around long enough to know there has been talk about community banks and additional services being the salvation of the post office network. None of that has happened and post offices continue to close, as Broadford post office has closed. We are all well aware that establishing a community bank, which in essence is a brilliant idea, will require a cultural shift in the way we do our business and an input from the State. That will take a hell of a lot of time.

My concern is that a swathe of post offices will continue to close while we as an institution of the State continue to talk about all the things that can be done. They are going to take too long. What is needed now is a public service obligation, PSO, and direct funding by the State to stabilise the post office network and allow for the reopening of Broadford post office and the retention of the overall post office network at its current size. We can then look at the array of services which would make the post office network more profitable and less dependent on State funding. However, we have to get that foundation in place as soon as possible.

I also raise the issue of the situation in Shannon Airport. Other speakers have referred to the necessity to appoint a chairperson there quickly and I welcome the Minister's active engagement with stakeholders in the region, including with members of the Oireachtas and the chambers of commerce and with people who are in the know about the situation. The sooner that appointment can be made the better, but I really welcome the approach being taken by the Minister. Whatever the debacle was in this regard, it speaks volumes for the Public Appointment Service, PAS, and an investigation is needed. I am aware of several individuals who seemed eminently qualified who applied for the role and did not even get an interview. I have concerns about how PAS does its business. This may be an issue for another committee, but it is a matter which needs to be addressed.

In the context of the review of the national development plan, NDP, we are looking at how we can accommodate 1 million more people in our country, including putting in place aspects such as the requisite transport networks etc. and how we can achieve all that. In doing that, let us not forget the approximately 5 million people we already have. I support the approach being taken by the Minister, but there is real concern that the concentration of investment in public transport as opposed to roads will leave a gap and that we will not be removing the existing pinch points for the almost five million people currently experiencing difficulties on our roads.

In this regard, I think about the bridge in Killaloe, the inner relief road at Blake's Corner in Ennistymon and the road between Ennis and Ennistymon. These are key projects that I and anyone from County Clare is familiar with. We want to see those projects advanced. Public transport should of course be improved, as should Local Link which is doing really well and new services are being rolled out. However, we must also look at the speed at which people can get from point to point.

In regard to the new service from Ennis to Kilrush, it takes two and a half hours to get to the train station from Kilrush. It is not going to move people from cars to buses. We need to tighten it.

It is not just community banking in terms of the post office networks. We must be careful on the banking side. It is an industry in flux. We have stopped using cash because of Covid-19. How many here have a Revolut card? How many of their relations are being queried on that? However, that is a separate issue. I kid you not, the questions my family have been asked on that are shocking. It is not going to go back to traditional banking. There is a role for financial services within that.

The Deputy's colleague, Michael Moriarty, has been pushing the case for an example similar in size and demography in respect of Broadford, Kishkeam and out beyond Newmarket in north-west Cork and to see if we could make it a local enterprise hub centre with several workplaces and a high-speed broadband connection. We should be thinking beyond the traditional in terms of new services or projects.

There was a post bus in the Loop Head Peninsula with the post van working as a local bus. It is similar to the system in Switzerland. We will we see many more parcels and the post offices are not making much money from the parcel business, although everyone else is. Those vans could go around places such as Kilrush. Rather than waiting four hours for the next bus, one could take the post van instead. The van could have parcels in the back and a half-dozen seats at the front. We need to think differently.

Deputies and Senators will have to get a few buses.

Some of us already have.

We need to see a variety of different services. Someone said these are centres of local and national government. Another example is getting a new driver licence, which is not easy at present. It is a big palaver in which one has to get an appointment in a relatively distant location. Could we deliver that kind of service where a physical presence is needed? It cannot be done online.

Our Department has an obligation, along with our colleagues, to consider whether we can extend the number of services that could go to local post offices to make them viable because they will not be with letters, stamps or cash transactions. Those will not be the key. It will all be mobile and electronic.

My concern is that if we do not do something to underpin the post office, we are going to have a continuation of-----

The Government will not let that occur. It is too strategically important.

An Post will be before us next week. We will engage with the Minister thereafter in terms of the future of the post office network in the context of Bank of Ireland branch closures. We will undertake to interact with the Minister as part of this body of work.

I have been distracted from the other questions.

I refer to the €5 million versus the €1 million and the necessity to resolve pinch points already in our transport network. I talked about Killaloe-----

We have invested massively in our road network over the last 30 years. The first priority should be considering safety issues or pinch points, as the Deputy said. A large number of small bypasses, such as the centre of our-----

Killaloe is a case in point that has already started.

I can think of several examples. Town centres are first. Rather than a bypass that costs €0.25 billion which is 25 km long, a 5 km bypass could achieve the objective of solving our traffic problems, improving traffic safety and, critically, reviving the town. I would like to move towards the reprioritisation of town bypasses in the national development plan.

We are on the same page.

I welcome that the Minister spoke about the national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, in his speech. It will now go to public consultation. The strategic framework for investment in land transport is Government policy approved by Cabinet. We got a letter from the Minister's Secretary General, Mr. Ken Spratt, who appeared before us recently, stating that the Minister has approved that it will go out to public consultation by the end of March and that it will be an eight week consultation period. Will it be approved by Cabinet prior to the finalisation of the NDP and in line with the strategic framework for investment in land transport, SFILT, process?

It will go to Cabinet in the next two or three weeks before it goes to public consultation. It will go out to public consultation by the end of March. It is part of a long process.

My question is slightly different. The strategic framework for investment in land transport went to public consultation and was brought to Cabinet for formal approval afterwards. I cannot see how this can be approved by Cabinet without first going to public consultation. Can it go to public consultation and go through a normal process with the Minister bringing it to Cabinet for its formal approval prior to the finalisation of the national development plan, NDP?

The Department's submission to the NDP review process that is currently under way at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is done under the national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, which is Deputy Ryan's right as Minister. If it is to underpin transport projects in the NDP, would it not be more appropriate if it went to public consultation prior to being approved by Cabinet?

It will go to Cabinet before and after. I read the discussions with my Secretary General on this. The national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, started in 2017 long before this Government come in. It is important and appropriate is because the previous plan was done prior to the national planning framework. The reason this started in 2017 was to update our thinking-----

I am not questioning the merits of the document; I am questioning the process. The process would be that it would go out to public consultation to get public feedback prior to it being approved by Cabinet. I am considering a process and it is important that when the national development plan is finalised, the key investment criteria by which it is underpinned in terms of the Department of Transport is a document that is formally approved by Government with the Minister bringing it to Cabinet.

It will be formally approved but that does not stop the concept, or the thinking, behind it. The focus on the national planning framework in the meantime-----

Will it be brought to the Minister after the public consultation? Will it be brought to Cabinet for approval prior to the finalisation of the national development plan?

The timing should be analogous. It should be the same time. It depends on how quickly the interview is done-----

I regard it as very important. Will the Minister commit to bringing it to Cabinet prior to the finalisation of the national development plan, NDP? When the reviewed version of the NDP comes out, and we all want it to be enhanced, it has to be underpinned by an investment appraisal criteria within the Minister's Department that is approved by Cabinet.

The Minister, Deputy McGrath, will have to decide on the timing of the national development plan, NDP. I cannot shoehorn it in. I am nervous of the implication that the national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, provides a computerised perfect solution where x, y or z project should be "Yes" or "No" and it comes out as definitive. It does not. It is part of an ongoing process of accessing how to deliver on the national planning framework. It will not just stop at the review of the NDP. An ongoing assessment will continue.

I accept that but will the Minister be brining it back to Government after the public consultation?

It will go back to Government.

I will move on to matter of the Shannon Group chair.

We very much welcome the Minister's engagement with stakeholders and Oireachtas Members. The post is important. Shannon Airport is at a crucial juncture. When does the Minister anticipate that a new chair will be appointed to the Shannon Group?

It will happen within a number of weeks. I do not want us to constrain ourselves because, as I said, we want to get it right. That is our timeframe.

The urban rail network, which involves the Limerick metropolitan area, the Shannon strategy and transportation strategies, will undergo further review. The Minister might indicate the funding and timeframe involved in terms of the use of the existing rail network in Limerick city, which I am very enthusiastic about. How will that feed into the process? The Minister spoke about road projects. Where does he see the M20 project fitting into his thought stream? It is important to have a rail and motorway side to the project.

TII is examining rail and road options. There are a variety of options. There is likely to be a further paring down of options within the next quarter. TII will outline some further options and analysis later this year. The project is at a relatively early stage.

On rail investment in Limerick, some of the thinking behind NIFTI comes into this. It outlines where we should optimise the use of existing assets. In my mind, that is where the Limerick metropolitan rail plan comes in. We are in the middle of drafting the Limerick metropolitan area strategy. It is evolving. The benefit of investing in the rail network in Limerick, such as building new stations and upgrading existing stations, is that existing assets are optimised. If we open up a rail freight line to Foynes, it will create an economic rail freight cargo while at the same time allowing us to open it up for commuting and other traffic. What I am aiming for is the likes of Adare having a rail station at the same time as the Ryder Cup.

I thank the Minister for his attendance and presentation. The TII report for 2021 identified the existing N24 between Cahir and Limerick Junction as not being fit for purpose. It was acknowledged that the current N24 is substandard, with a high volume of bends causing poor visibility. The N24 is the main artery between Rosslare Europort and Limerick and demand for the route will increase due to Brexit and projected economic growth. Tipperary town is at the centre of this pathway. It is already an area of high traffic congestion. It is a bottleneck.

The current traffic through Tipperary town's narrow and congested Main Street is measured at 85,000 vehicles per week, including heavy goods transporters. The town is choked with traffic. The level of traffic through the town is detrimental to quality of life and business activity. The section between Tipperary town and Cahir consistently has collision rates twice the national average. Delays in the town of Tipperary are causing huge frustration and a burden of cost to those who use this essential route.

Travelling through Tipperary town is a horrendous experience. It is extremely dangerous for pedestrians. The level of air pollution and noise is intolerable. Local people are furious after years of inaction. Having listened to every proposal and argument put forward, I have come to the conclusion it is imperative to construct a bypass from Cahir to Limerick Junction, encompassing Tipperary town, to alleviate a chaotic situation. I believe this to be the most logical and efficient way to solve the problem.

Realistically, the town will not be sanctioned for two roads, a link or ring road and a bypass. Tipperary County Council and TII have identified a suitable route for a bypass. However, it is not currently included in the national development plan. I request the Minister and Department to include the N24 in the national development plan. I ask that the section from Cahir to Limerick Junction be given priority. This would mean that the section of the bypass serving Tipperary town would be designed, finalised and commenced first. It would form the first part of the N24 route and later become the connecting part between Limerick and Waterford.

Along with many others, I believe this is most cost-effective and efficient way to proceed. With Tipperary town being identified as an area of social deprivation, investment in the bypass will not only improve the quality of life for local residents, it will also progress the local economy and expand connectivity on what is a vital strategic transport link between Limerick, Waterford and Rosslare.

The Deputy is absolutely right about the importance of Tipperary town getting relief from the traffic running through Main Street. It is plagued by very heavy levels of freight traffic. As the Deputy knows, traffic from large industrial areas in Shannon and Galway heading towards Rosslare or the Port of Waterford all run through the likes of Tipperary town. That leads to huge problems, including congestion.

Vacancies on Main Street and so on are very high because of the town's characteristics. It is exactly the sort of priority I mentioned earlier, namely, putting town centres first and creating new and vibrant urban public realms in the centre of our 19th century market towns.

My understanding that in the public consultation that occurred recently a variety of options were discussed, including by TII. A section of the road between Cahir and Limerick Junction could have a bypass for Tipperary town as a first priority. The journey from Cahir to Limerick Junction is 35 km, as the Deputy knows. The project would not be cheap; it would cost several hundred million. We are constrained by budget and engineering capability. Therefore, the best thing we could do would be to choose particular blackspots, as I said to Senator Dooley, and address them quickly. The town needs to be rescued from its traffic difficulties as quickly as possible, which could involve highlighting and addressing shorter sections of 6 km, 7 km or 8 km and a bypass of Tipperary town. If there was a future upgrade of the wider road from Cahir to Limerick Junction, the project would fit within that. My priority is to deal with the likes of Tipperary town quickly.

I very much welcome the comments of the Minister. It is a positive response to my request to make Tipperary town the centre of the first piece of action on the on N24. I understand the financial constraints of his Department. It is absolutely crucial we liberate Tipperary town from the scourge of traffic congestion. I thank the Minister for his response, which I appreciate. I look forward to having discussions with the officials. It is important to include this section in the national development plan.

The first coach service in this country was run by Bianconi from Clonmel to Limerick, I understand. He took a strange route, through the caravanserai in Tipperary via Tipperary town en route to Limerick. No one knows why he took that route; he should have gone via Bansha. My family was involved in looking after the horses at the first stopping post, so my family history includes the Cahir to Limerick road. I hope that bias does not influence my decisions. It is an example of where we should prioritise our towns first strategy.

Is the Deputy satisfied?

I am very satisfied. I thank the Minister.

TII came before the committee two or three weeks ago and provided us with a glossy brochure of road projects throughout the country with a massive, eye-watering price tag on many of the road proposals. This made me think that if even a small proportion of that money was put towards proper public transport projects, we could achieve many our objectives in terms of getting people from place to place.

When we talk about transport, we are not only talking about people getting from one place to another for work during rush hour. We are also talking about giving people access to recreation and education and those who do not own cars the ability to travel further and access many more benefits.

As currently proposed, would the national development plan cut emissions? We now have an objective to cut carbon emissions by 7% per annum and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. If we proceed with projects that lock in carbon emissions, that release a lot of carbon at construction stage and that lock in the users of those projects, we will lock ourselves into high-carbon emission production for many years. We cannot continue on like that.

The Minister spoke earlier about optimising existing assets. One of the assets we have in this country which we do not optimise enough is our railway network. Under the old railway network, there were many more lines resulting in far less dependence on cars. We have to start shifting that balance back again. We are always going to have cars. We are not anti-car but we must look at optimising the assets we have.

We talk about the electrification of projects. The DART+ programme, which includes the electrification of lines, is ambitious and to be welcomed. The programme extends north as far as Drogheda. Perhaps it should go beyond that. To the west it will reach to Hazelhatch, Maynooth and possibly beyond. While we have that expertise in the country installing and constructing that electrified network, we should consider electrifying different parts of the network, such as those around Limerick or Cork, or extending the programme to Wicklow. As we look at these rail electrification projects, I ask the Minister to consider how they could be expanded while we have that expertise and while construction is up and running under the DART+ programme.

Deputy Matthews is right; we have to start taking climate change far more seriously. The scale of our ambition and the level of change planned are beyond compare. The existing climate action plan includes a very ambitious switch towards electric vehicles and the use of biofuels including biodiesel. Every country in Europe is now doing this but we are faced with a challenge to go much further and transport will be a key part of this. It accounts for 20% of our emissions, which will need to decrease from 12 million tonnes to 6 million tonnes or lower. They should be heading towards zero within three decades. It is a challenge beyond compare but it will lead to a better country and economy and a more social and healthier environment. The key development, beyond the switch to EVs, biofuels and so on, will be the reduction of demand for travel and modal switches. These will be key elements in making the next reductions in carbon emissions.

That is why I keep coming back to the national planning framework. It recognises that and also recognises we need not only balanced regional development but compact development. That is why I have pushed the towns first strategy. To the best of our ability, we should make sure people are able to live within walking distance of churches, pubs, schools and shops. It is not verboten for someone not to live so close to amenities, but local services, including post offices, thrive in those sorts of well-designed communities in which people live within walking, cycling and bus distance. They work better. That is why the Government has shifted spending so that it is now 2:1 in favour of public transport versus roads and why, aside from that, it has set aside 20% of the capital budget for active travel, including walking. That is for rural Ireland as well.

Deputy Matthews knows more about rail than anyone here. He is right; we will have to electrify the network because we will have zero carbon emissions and no fossil fuels in 2030. We have to start thinking about how to do that. Could the network be electrified as far as south as Wicklow, in the Deputy's constituency? The benefits would include a faster, more efficient, cleaner, quieter, quicker and better train service. It should not stop there. The Deputy spoke about Limerick as an example earlier. Why would we not run commuter rail services from Limerick or beyond? We could have a service from Nenagh to Limerick.

Or Shannon.

Exactly, Shannon is another example. This area is evolving but I understand new electric battery options are coming into view. Irish Rail will have to come back to us on the technical aspects but I believe that is where we are going to go, towards electrification and compact development built around good quality public transport systems.

We are doing a rail review this year. Mr. Doocey, who is seated behind me, is commissioning it. Let us go back to Tipperary town. The town has a brilliant railway station. We have discussed the route from Nenagh to Limerick, but why not consider a route from Carrick-on-Suir or Clonmel to Waterford? That would build up Waterford as the capital of the south east, if that is not too difficult a thing to say politically. It would also benefit Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel. Those towns have fantastic infrastructure. We can either let it go or restore it and bring it back. Let us do up the railway station in Tipperary town and start running proper services to and from it. At the moment, the service in Tipperary town, Clonmel or Carrick-on-Suir cannot really be used because a pony or horse and cart would be quicker. That is part of the solution and the rail review will look at it.

I will take a new rail service with a bypass.

They are not mutually exclusive.

It is not like a DART line to Kilgarvan. The infrastructure is already there.

Tipperary and Clonmel have infrastructure that could be improved and upgraded.

Yes, and we should build housing around it.

I apologise to Senator Craughwell. I got my wires crossed with regard to sequencing.

There is no need at all for the Chairman to apologise. It is interesting that the Minister talked about the Bianconi coaches. My grandfather was the last coachman in Galway and he drove a Bianconi coach to Clifden, drawn by four horses. Transport in Galway is, therefore, in my blood. I would like to talk to the Minister about this light rail project. Anybody looking at the city of Galway would certainly not use its layout if building a city. There is a very active group in Galway concerned with bringing light rail to the city. An excellent report was prepared by Mr. Murt Coleman, chartered engineer, with whom I ask the Minister to engage.

Bringing more buses into Galway will not solve the city's problems. Some 336,000 cars a week travel into the city. I do not live in Galway now and I am very thankful I do not. The traffic congestion in the city is bound to have a negative effect on foreign direct investment or any other sort of investment which would create jobs. It has become very difficult to travel across the city. I understand there is a plan in place. The Minister has shown tremendous imagination and willingness to listen and to reappraise situations today. I ask that he agree to meet with the light rail group from Galway city and at least to explore the possibility of developing the project the group has in mind.

Some 22,000 citizens in Galway have already said they favour some sort of light rail system in the city. I believe the system now being talked about is the Coventry system. This is not a heavy rail system such as the Luas but a very light rail system. The route could run from the airport at Carnmore, into the city and right through to Barna, feeding all of the satellite settlements around the city such as Mervue, Ballybane, Renmore, Salthill, Knocknacarra and Barna. We have to move away from heavy vehicles with diesel engines and to start looking at alternatives. I have spoken to the people involved in the light rail project in Galway and I am quite excited by what they have proposed. Is the Minister willing to meet this group and at least to consider carrying out a feasibility study on the introduction of a light rail system in Galway?

Before answering the Senator's questions, I will go back to his Bianconi connections. Bianconi was an incredible man. He was an Italian and a friend of Daniel O'Connell. He hauled picture frames around the country and got fed up with seeing the aristocracy going by in their carriages so he decided to set up his own. He ran the Ryanair of his day and had real class. His carriages ended up going as far as Belmullet, with the first stop having been-----

I am sure Michael O'Leary will welcome that comparison.

With regard to Galway, I have regularly met the various people who rightly advocate for light rail in Galway. They make a very good case.

We have an immediate priority. We must build high-quality bus corridor routes from the likes of Barna to Taylor's Hill, the hospital and the university, through the town, through Eyre Square and out towards Parkmore. As I understand it, that is one of the two light rail routes that people have been considering. Similar to what we will need to do in Cork, we must identify key bus corridor routes and build them out. It will be politically difficult to get prioritisation on the road. That is the challenge, but it must be done in Galway and Cork with a view to being upgradable to light rail. That is the sequence we should have in mind. The key decision is the road space. Impressively, the people in Galway are considering a new technology that is coming on stream. It is very light rail, which would perfectly suit just such a staged approach of putting the bus corridor first, building passenger demand, showing that the demographics can work and changing transport patterns within the city, thereby making the case.

We will have to review the Galway transport strategy next year. That will be the perfect place to consider light rail options. However, we cannot delay. We must proceed not just with bus routes in Galway, but also with cycling infrastructure. Everyone knows that Galway is probably the area in the country worst affected by traffic. Everyone is living on one side of the city and working on the other, leading to major congestion. Public transport as well as cycling and other active travel solutions will be critical. By delivering them, it will set us on the path towards converting them into light rail routes. I understand that the latest thinking from the light rail community in Galway is along similar lines, namely, turning bus lanes into light rail lines using new, advanced and very light technology. I would be supportive of reviewing that idea next year as part of the review of the Galway transport strategy.

I thank the Minister. What I heard was encouraging. He has amazed me with his knowledge of every town and village in Ireland. Clearly, he is the right man for the job. The next time he is in Galway, he should go to Blackrock and look at the commemoration to Malachy Craughwell and the Bianconi coach.

I thank the Chairman for allowing me to substitute for Deputy Duncan Smith. I come from the town of Mallow, which is one of those towns that the Minister has described in terms of developing their potential and radiating their services outward. I am a regular rail user. Currently, 90% of my travel is by rail between Mallow and Dublin. I am an onward user of the Leap card, which is like a piece of gold to me. If I am a Mallow resident, though, I cannot use it to travel to Cork. I can travel from Dublin Pearse Station to Greystones using a Leap card, but not from Mallow to Cork. Therein lies the injustice and inequality. I have been campaigning for nearly three years to have the Leap card service extended between Mallow and Cork. I have been going in and out of the National Transport Authority, NTA, and going around the houses. If the Minister is serious about shifting modes of transport and putting people on trains and buses, will he please take on this simple issue? It is useless for us to talk about modal shifts unless we go after the low-hanging fruit. It would be significant if the Leap card could be used by students, older people or people of any age to go in and out of Cork. We would see a dramatic reduction in the number of cars on the roads to Cork because public transport services could be extended.

My next issue concerns towns themselves. I hope that the Minister has relations in or some connection to Mallow, Buttevant and Charleville. I am sure he will recount a personal tale for us. If he has a personal connection to any of those towns, I implore him to ensure that the ongoing consultation process in respect of a bypass for Mallow is followed up with a budget line. It is vital that the town be bypassed, but it is also important that if we are going to - I believe I have interpreted the Minister correctly in this - bypass towns like Mallow, Buttevant and Charleville, we do not take our eye off the ball as regards the proposed M20 Cork-Limerick motorway. I continue to make the case for the motorway on the basis of regional investment into the very towns the Minister was talking about on the one hand and, on the other, ensuring that we make roads safe. There have been too many fatalities on the routes between Cork and Limerick. On average, there are more than 17,000 movements between Cork and Charleville per day. Too many people have died. I ask that the proposals not be mutually exclusive goals. The bypass is needed, but there is also a need to deal with towns like Mallow, Buttevant and Charleville. I do not want to be too parochial, but we must speak to thousands upon thousands of people in the Munster region who are depending on the bypass to be completed in an appropriate way. Like the Chairman, I welcome the investment in public transport that the Minister mentioned. I am someone who loves using the train. The two proposals are not mutually exclusive.

My final point is on EirGrid and the interconnector. Everyone sees the interconnector's potential. The point at which landfall takes place is in east Cork. There are residents in the little area around Churchtown and Roxborough who have expressed concerns. If possible, will the Minister use his good offices to intercede with EirGrid, insofar as that is appropriate, to ensure that there is no disruption to the lives of people living in those little pockets? We all realise that the interconnector will be a vital piece of infrastructure, as do the residents, but they have expressed concerns.

I hope that it will be my Leap card and not the pensioner's free travel card that I will be able to use on the day we open up the service from Mallow to Midleton, not just Cork. That is what is in the Cork metropolitan area strategy, which we are seeking to advance. It is a perfect project that will use existing infrastructure. It will require work at Kent Station so that we can run right the way through. That makes sense. It would also involve new stations at the likes of Tivoli, on the north side of Cork, in Blarney and in Monard where housing should be put. Cork County Council must adjust its development plan now to configure housing with the public transport plans that I hope we will get through the national development plan review. Linked with what Deputy Matthews spoke about, the new electric battery trains would be charged in Mallow and run in and out of there. That makes what we are talking about a completely different prospect. That is a metropolitan rail service, not an intercity one, and it could run much more frequently. This is doable and should be our top transport priority because we need Cork to be strong and to grow as a centre.

There was a specific question on the Leap card.

It is an issue for the NTA, which has a statutory function in this regard, but I will contact it and make the case. I hope I will be able to use my Leap card without having to wait for my pensioner's bus pass.

It is good to see the Minister setting a deadline anyway.

The problem is it takes so long to build infrastructure in our country.

Unfortunately, I am at that age where, if we followed the normal process, I would not be using my Leap card. That is a problem. It takes us ten years to do anything. We cannot afford to wait ten years for Cork to move to a sustainable housing approach. We need to build the housing now and put public transport in at the same time. The real challenge-----

The Minister and I will get on at Mallow, travel to Midleton and have a wee dram in Midleton distillery to celebrate that when it happens.

Will the Minister deal with the interconnector issue now?

The interconnector is absolutely critical not just nationally but locally. Where we have interconnection with electricity connection supplies, we will have industry. Little Island, the pharmaceutical industries in Cork harbour and other new industries that come in will be attracted to where that strong point in the grid is. It is critical for Cork's industrial development and employment. In that Cork harbour region, the interconnector is key.

It is a high voltage direct current, HVDC, underground interconnection to the Carrigtwohill industrial estate. It does not have an electromagnetic charge. We had many difficulties when we built the first east-west interconnector from north Dublin to north Wales.

The Minister must conclude.

We ran it through the village of Rush. It was very difficult and contentious but EirGrid did it well in the end and satisfied the local community that it can be done in a very sensitive way that is attentive to their needs. I am sure it will do that again. It is a critical piece of infrastructure for the economy of Cork and the country.

What about the M20?

As I said earlier, the critical thing about the M20 is making sure that places like Buttevant, Charleville and Mallow are the priority. That is our key focus.

I commend the Minister on his vision and his optimism. I hope we can, collectively, be successful. I am glad he mentioned the need for Cork to be strong because we are becoming very Dublin-centric. We need to have a counterbalance through balanced regional development but I have some concerns. I am fully supportive and totally in favour of the policy switch to public transport. Deputy Sherlock spoke about the Leap card. It is a single journey from Cork to Mallow, whereas Cork to Midleton is a number of stops. That is part of the problem.

The Cabinet announced urban regeneration funding this week, which will be ongoing. My worry is that we will end up with no Cork city and that it will be left behind. On the island of the city now there are derelict buildings and idle sites. Everything is moving to the docklands, which we are all for, and up the other end there is the redevelopment of Bishop Lucey Park and the Grand Parade. However, the central piece of the island of Cork city, which is Patrick Street and the offshoots, is dying a death - no pun intended. One could land a jumbo jet on the pigeons on Patrick Street in Cork city today. As a Cork person I am genuinely worried. I am supportive of the Cork metropolitan strategy and I embrace it wholeheartedly. We had a great meeting with the NTA a few weeks ago. I will walk and drive with the Minister on buses and bikes every step of the way but I appeal to him, his officials and the Government not to let Cork city become full of tumbleweed. We must have a vibrant city. I appeal to the Minister to use the national development plan with the urban regeneration fund to drive a reimagined and revitalised Cork city.

To that end, I refer to the issue of the airport. We are all parochial about airports. Cork Airport is central to the new Cork as the connectivity point. Deputy Lowry used the word "liberation". The Minister's legacy, along with that of other Cabinet colleagues, will be the liberation and rebirth of Cork city. We can talk about bus corridors and public transport and have a wonderful image of what that looks like but if we have no place to go to offer a counterbalance to Dublin then we are in big trouble. The glossy magazines Deputy Matthews spoke about will not be worth the paper on which they are written. I will support the Minister 1000% but let us make sure that, in the case of Cork city, we do not have a city that is falling behind. It should be embraced as a new futuristic looking city. I thank the Minister for that.

Senator Craughwell mentioned my knowledge of the country. I was fortunate to spend 15 years driving around the country bringing people on holidays and that gave me knowledge of many different areas, including Cork city, which I know well. The Senator is right that the centre of the city is key. Cork has been hollowed out, like so many Irish cities, but it is probably the worst of them. John Spillane had a song that went "Johnny don’t go to Ballincollig ... Johnny don’t go to Carragaline" but everyone went out and we need to bring them back in. That is how one gets cities that attract investment and that work in a variety of different ways.

Cork has its problems with flooding as it is low lying - we all know that - but it is also stunning. Oliver Plunkett Street just won a big award as best street. It is a fantastic city. The critical decision we need to make is at the local council level. As an example of something that would do exactly what the Senator is suggesting, I will take one bus corridor route in Cork. From Ballincollig it would go through CIT and back by the hospital, down Wilton Road, the Western Road, pass by UCC, Washington Street, the Grand Parade and the South Mall and then out to the docks. That would not just service the docks and Mahon. It would service the centre. That will require difficult political decision-making, similar to the decisions we are about to make in Dublin.

In Dublin, we are en route to delivering BusConnects and getting it through planning. We also need to deliver a BusConnects for Cork. It was difficult when we started that project. The very first stage was on Wilton Road on that key section near the old greyhound stadium and the hospital. The local council said "No" to the project. It probably had good reasons because the locals on that street would lose some of the their front gardens, similar to parts of Dublin. We need to come back with a different solution. We need to look at that section of the road and decide to restrict through traffic, make it one way, use a bus gate or use the innovative methods we have now developed in Dublin, using the NTA to deliver them in Cork. We need that bus corridor because we need to revive the Grand Parade, Oliver Plunkett Street and Patrick Street, through which that route goes. We are starting. I understand that the council is working on turning the South Mall around as the centre of the business district. The docklands are starting to take off. The plan is viable but it requires the local authority to work with my Department by being ready and keen to do this and by providing the political direction to give the road space to really go with the sustainable transport solutions.

As the Senator knows, the bus service in Cork is not up to standard and it does not have the same advanced plans that there are in Dublin. Bus Éireann and the bus companies are up for it and they will do it but political leadership is needed at a local level to say we are going to go with Cork sustainable transport systems, which will revive the centre more than anywhere else.

Does Senator Buttimer wish to come back in?

It is okay. I am conscious of time.

I thank the Minister for being here to discuss some of the issues on which we are working. For the past number of months, since I was appointed to this committee, I have been working with him on a number of key issues. I will be parochial for a moment and deal with some of those pertaining to my own constituency. I concur with some of the points made by my colleague Deputy Sherlock regarding the Leap card situation in Mallow. Indeed, one of the very first things that brought me to Leinster House as a member of Comhairle na nÓg was a meeting with him and Senator Buttimer, when he was in the Dáil, to lobby for Leap cards to be introduced outside of Dublin. We were successful in that but we were given commitments by the then Minister for Transport, that is, the previous Taoiseach and now Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, that the Department would expand services for rural towns that are serviced by rail in County Cork. I reiterate that that has to be sorted out. We had conversations with the NTA, which has come back saying it is prohibitive because of cost. That is unacceptable because it provides those same services to people living in the greater Dublin area who can use their Leap cards and that is not afforded to constituents in my area. My maternal family are from Mallow. This is an issue I am hoping to resolve and it is important to me that it be looked into. Perhaps the Minister would have a conversation with the NTA in that regard.

Regarding the national development plan, there are two very exceptional projects I want to see addressed. I recently attended a breakfast meeting with the Cobh & Harbour Chamber, with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to talk about the significant issues facing that town and the community there. One issue that is of concern to Cobh residents, local businesses and the chamber for Cork Harbour and the Cobh area is the access road on and off of Cobh island. I would like some focus to be put on that issue. It is quite tricky in the sense that a regional road must be redesignated as a national road.

From experience of previously highlighting this with officials who have been into this committee, their responses have been fairly confusing. From my conversations with the local authority, I understand it is trying its best to resolve that.

Most importantly, the decision on the finalisation of the national development plan is imminent. I am adamant that I get answers from the Minister on the issue of the N25 bypass at Castlemartyr and Killeagh. I know Castlemartyr has received money for a feasibility study, but the issues in Killeagh have been raised with us repeatedly and we need to get that onto the national development plan. The Minister might have something to say on that and I can come back in afterwards.

I will address that last issue first because it is an example of what I have been talking about in terms of what we will do with our road network and what we will invest in. On the example of the N25, there may have been an original plan to look at the whole section from Youghal to Midleton as a dual carriageway all of the way and so on. The key and critical bottlenecks and pinch points are in Castlemartyr and Killeagh. There are short bypass options on the road network that would address the particular problems in those two places. I had a meeting with TII on it because it is an interesting example of what we need to do strategically.

In Castlemartyr there are difficulties because the town is on the side the bypass would be done. It is boggy and flood-prone land so it would have to be a sophisticated solution that would not be cheap. That is the sort of project we need to look at. Bypasses should be a priority. It is the same with the village of Killeagh, which has a similar configuration and a similar problem with traffic running through it. We should invest in bypasses in these places rather than making a major investment in that entire section of the national road.

It is the same with the R624 from Cobh to Glounthaune. The Deputy is right it is quite an exposed road because it is almost across the causeway along the seafront and it has an old bridge. Again, this project will not be easy because an upgrade programme to protect the road from erosion or to protect the bridge is not insignificant expenditure. Even to do a basic upgrade of the road would not be insignificant in cost.

I keep coming back to the same simple and clear message that our priority in our roads programme should be on safety, protecting the assets we have, and that where there is particular inferiority on our national or regional road network, we invest there rather than necessarily in large major new motorways or other interurban projects. We have a limited budget and it is best spent on those regional and more local site-specific investments. That is what I would hope will come out of our end-of-year review.

I thank the Minister for his contribution. On the east-west interconnector, significant frustrations have been outlined by people in the east Cork area on EirGrid's communication with landowners. My family lives along that line and it affects our local community. We have not been communicated with either on the status of the project, and I would ask the Minister to engage with EirGrid to ask it to improve its communication with local residents around the Midleton area and Churchtown. The communication has been unacceptably poor and that has been outlined at municipal district meeting level, but I take this opportunity in the committee to ask the Minister to do that. I would appreciate that.

I commit to doing that. I am in regular contact with EirGrid and I will make sure it listens to the Deputy and his colleagues on that.

I thank my colleagues for allowing me to take a slot. I am not a member of this committee, but between Galway coachmen, Daniel O'Connell and Cork distilleries, I might be back again.

I want to raise two issues with the Minister. First, I mention the consultation that is taking place on the Dublin 11 Luas line through Finglas. I have raised this with the Minister and, as he knows, it is a post-2027 project. I am sure the Minister would agree with me that it fulfils all of the goals of our programme for Government that it would be a pre-2027 project and would be prioritised in the review of the national development plan. I do not say that in expectation of an answer today but to underline the point. If that project was completed with a terminus at Charlestown, it would have a 2 km gap between it and the MetroLink line which is being constructed up through Ballymun. While I do not expect both phases of that to be in place before 2027, there is great merit in connecting those two lines. That would unlock the potential of those northern lands, assist in the regeneration of Ballymun and provide many other benefits. I will leave all of that with the Minister, and if he can prioritise that, I would much appreciate it.

Second, I mention the amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1961, which I know the Minister has Cabinet approval on and which will help tackle the issue of the illegal use of scrambler bikes. I plead with the Minister, as much as with the committee, that time would be made for the pre-legislative scrutiny of that amendment Bill and for Committee Stage, where I expect the Minister to bring forward amendments. When will the Minister be in a position to publish those amendments?

We got a briefing from the Department of Transport about the amendments that were coming through on e-scooters and e-bikes. It did not appear to include anything to do with scramblers, so maybe the Minister will provide a bit of clarity around that area. Does that make sense?

It does. The legislation will have quite a number of amendments on Committee Stage, including on scramblers.

When there is an opportunity to do so, maybe the Department will update this committee. It dealt with the e-bikes and e-scooters but not scramblers, and it was a question that Deputy O'Rourke had brought up in the committee.

It is awkward because they are coming as a variety of Committee Stage amendments. That is because it is in the programme for Government, but many Deputies have been pushing for these amendments to be accelerated and for these provisions to be developed.

Is that why they are not coming through in stand-alone legislation?

It was decided to try to get it speeded up because we are limited in the passage of Bills in the Dáil. Even if it is slightly inelegant in having a variety of Committee Stage amendments, I would prefer to get it through rather than waiting six months, nine months or a year, which can happen. I expect to have it shortly but we will also have to work with the Chief Whip's office. As soon as we can get it into the House for Second Stage, we will do so.

On Finglas, I ask the Deputy to endear himself to his party colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, because one of the challenges we will have is that, on the public transport side in particular, we have myriad projects vying for funding at a roughly similar time. The problem is that many of them are not ready to go to construction now. If they were ready, they would be out the gate, but they have to go through the planning process.

I remember launching the Finglas project nine months ago or so and I was thrilled to do so. It seems to me to be an obvious extension, it is mainly through greenfield sites, it services areas that badly need public transport development, and it would open up a lot of land, which is what we need to do on this. I was slightly disheartened when I looked at the projected timelines and I wondered why it was going to take so long. One of the difficulties is that we have to invest in MetroLink and the DART+ programme. They are both huge investment projects that are beyond compare in their scale. The BusConnects project will also not be cheap and that is before we start looking at the Navan rail line, and the Cork, Limerick and Galway rail investments, which are all investments we need to make. One of the challenges in the national development plan is how we will fit all of these public transport projects into what will be, if we are up front and honest, a limited budget.

I would be interested in talking to the Deputy in more detail about the possibility of connecting the Finglas route to the MetroLink. I would have thought that one risk of going down that route is that we get away from the greenfield access routes the preferred route option is on. I would be slightly nervous that such an approach would run into planning difficulties and delays, which is what is taking us so long. My instinct would be to stick with the existing route and use whatever help the Deputy can give me in getting the budget requirements we would need to be able to fund all of these public transport projects. That will be a real problem.

That gives Deputy McAuliffe a very positive outcome. Does he wish to comment further?

I thank the Minister for his contribution. I have made representations to the Minister, Deputy McGrath, and will continue to do so. The connection on to the MetroLink line would not be a significant issue. That option would have even more greenfield access routes than the existing preferred route. I take the Minister's point that it is not about delaying or stalling the current projection in any way. If we can get the first phase of that project reclassified as a pre-2027 project, I would be pleased.

I wish to refer to a small bit of housekeeping. The Minister mentioned that he is doing a national review of the rail network, which is very welcome. We wrote to his office looking for an update on that. Could he give us a follow-up briefing on that?

I was struck by his reference to making optimum use of existing assets. Could he elaborate on that, in particular in terms of rail? He will be aware that we are looking at rail connectivity on the M20. One of the options is to upgrade the existing rail line between Charleville and Limerick. Limerick Junction to Limerick city has only a single rail line within a double rail line. It does not interfere with private property. Two other routes were proposed. I am interested in hearing the Minister's general thinking on his vision for public transport. He is well aware of my commitment on the M20. I use the train to Dublin. I am probably one of the biggest users or rail and I am a great supporter of rail, but I do not see rail and road as being mutually exclusive.

I want to let other members in, but I am interested in getting the Minister's thoughts on his vision for the area. I have a strong view that rail and road are not mutually exclusive. It is about finding a way to get connectivity and balanced regional development. I am strongly in favour of the M20 because I believe we need a counter-pole along the western seaboard to Dublin and a key ingredient of that is a motorway. Equally, we need to enhance the rail network. I would like to see the Limerick Junction to Limerick city line becoming a double rail line. I am surprised that has not happened before now. It was there previously. At the moment, one does not have to get off the train between Charleville and Limerick. I would favour that approach rather than putting in a new rail line across virgin territory where it would cause significant anxiety among residents and not make maximum use of the existing rail network. I ask the Minister to give me his thoughts on it. It is a broader question, but it is something we do not get an opportunity to debate in the wider sphere. We have a couple of minutes. The Minister might just me his thoughts generally on it.

I believe we need to develop Cork and Limerick as a counterbalance. That is for the sake of Dubliners as well as anyone else because given the price of property in my constituency it is very difficult for my children to have the prospect of growing up in the way I did in my city because it is so expensive. The entire economy is tipping over into the east coast. We will all benefit from having strong regional development, in particular in cities like Cork and Limerick because that is where investment and development will go, close to universities, cultural centres and so on.

I agree with Edgar Morgenroth that the real way to develop Cork and Limerick is to invest in them rather than necessarily putting all the money on the connection points between the two. I have seen so many different international transport conferences over the years say the same thing. It is by investing in the urban public realm, in particular in public transport infrastructure in the centre of existing historic cities that, increasingly, encourages international investment and other development to occur.

I agree with what you said, Chairman, about using existing assets. The likes of a twin-track line from Limerick Junction to Colbert Station in Limerick would be perfect. A railway station at Ballysimon is included in the first draft of the Limerick metropolitan area strategy. At the moment, it is largely warehousing and industrial estates, but close to the centre could be reconvened in the same way we are going to do in Dublin.

I do not disagree with the Minister.

Let us look at what the LDA has been doing with the city council in Colbert Station. The surrounding area has great potential for development.

Using the existing rail network and the development of Colbert Station are important but I am interested in hearing about balanced regional development of the western seaboard on a macro scale. For me, it is equally as important to link the cities. We have Galway and Limerick linked by a motorway. At this stage, Limerick and Cork are the only two major cities in Ireland not linked by a motorway.

The problem I see in Limerick-----

It is a view.

If I could finish my family story: we set off from the Caravansary in the Glen of Aherlow and we ended up in the Limerick city in the Glentworth Hotel, which is only a stone's throw from the railway station.

It is now Pery's Hotel.

Yes, it is now Pery's Hotel, but it was the Glentworth when our family stayed there. Perhaps I am biased, but that Georgian city is spectacular.

I do not disagree with the Minister. The point I am making is that it is a wider question. I wholeheartedly agree that Georgian Limerick is hugely important. I spent my childhood going in and out of the Glentworth Hotel. If we are serious about it, I cannot see how we can have proper, strategic balanced regional development unless we link Cork and Limerick. I agree that we must provide rail links but there is a missing link between Cork and Limerick in terms of a motorway. I agree that we need to enhance our rail connectivity from Limerick Junction to Limerick city. That is where we differ. In terms of getting from point A to point B at every level, I cannot see how we can have proper, balanced regional development without an M20 linking Cork and Limerick.

Let me put it this way; first, the historic core of Limerick city has 3% of the population. If we do not bring it back, we will lose it. That would be seen as a terrible historic loss. We have options and difficult choices. We have €20 billion worth of a road programme and approximately €40 billion worth of public transport projects, so we are going to have to prioritise. The motorway from Limerick to Cork-----

Which is in the NDP.

Yes, but none of the projects in the NDP had a price on them. The price of the Limerick to Cork motorway would be €2 billion to €3 billion.

I do not think so.

That is what the price would be.

It would be €1 billion.

We can differ on that.

That is what I am told.

That is the first I have heard of that. We are being told €1 billion.

The bypass of Macroom cost €250 million. The Castlebar to Westport upgrade of the existing road cost another €250 million.

I do not want to take up too much time today; it is a wider question for me. I do not see how we cannot do it if we are serious about encouraging people and having business thrive and being a counter-pole to Dublin. There is an over-concentration in Dublin in population, infrastructure and everything else. We need to have this motorway. It is about a balanced model. It is something I will take up again with the Minister. I disagree with his estimate of €2 billion.

I will make one last point if I can. This is interesting because it is the core of the debate. One of the reasons Dublin has grown so much is because of the motorway network. What it tends to do is bring everything back to the centre. If we have a western corridor motorway from top to bottom, my fear for Limerick is that investment would head to Cork or to Galway. In truth, that is happening.

That is a statement of confidence by us as a city in the region. It is not about Limerick competing with Cork or Galway; it is about providing the synergy to be a counter-pole to Dublin. I respect the Minister's view but, equally, as a public representative for Limerick city, I fundamentally believe we must have rail and a motorway. They are not mutually exclusive. There is a process under way and the M20 is in the NDP.

Let us look at it another way; whatever is the preferred solution, the M20 is a long way away as it takes time. The upgrading of the twin track from Limerick Junction to Colbert Station can be done within two to four years.

I agree. It is happening.

Yes. Running the railway to Shannon Airport will cost, because we have to go through Cratloe and Sixmilebridge and it is expensive when one is building on new ground. We have discussed putting a station in Corbally and Moyross and, to my mind, the 100 plus ha that one could develop around the railway station, close to Thomond Park and Limerick Institute of Technology would provide the transport-led development on which further development could be based.

I do not disagree with the Minister on that, but I believe there is a place for both. Road and rail complement each other. The Coonagh to Knockalisheen Road was as important as putting a railway station in Moyross. I would love to have a wider discussion on it, but we do not have time. I want to bring in my colleagues. I call Deputy O'Rourke.

I guess at some stage I had better finish up, Chairman.

I thank the Minister.

If the Minister has an opportunity, he might touch on the point I made earlier on the transport structures and agencies and if there is a need or opportunity to align them or to improve or expand on their remit.

Is the Minister confident the NDP will deliver on the ambitious target of a 51% emissions reduction? I presume the transport sector will be expected to do its fair share of lifting in that regard, given it is a considerable contributor to emissions.

The Deputy may be correct. We do need to look at review of the National Transport Authority, NTA, and TII. I have always found the sort of inter-relationship between those organisations to be slightly strange. TII is very efficient at delivering infrastructure and, to my mind, it should, therefore, get on with it in terms of the various roads programmes we have discussed but also, critically, the metro project. As I stated, I believe it can have an increasing role on the active travel side, and that is something we are reviewing. The NTA is more on the strategic planning side but it too has shown real ability, judging by what I have seen in respect of projects such as BusConnects in Dublin. Its staffing levels were significantly increased in the recent budget to enable it to replicate that in Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick. As I stated to Senators Craughwell and Buttimer and other members, we need the NTA to help the local authorities in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford to deliver those projects. The NTA is responsible for the big public transport projects, including transport planning in the metropolitan cities and the delivery of active travel. BusConnects is one of its projects. Irish Rail has a crucial role too. For example, the link between Limerick Junction and Colbert Station, which we were discussing, will be the responsibility of Irish Rail, in conjunction with the NTA.

Irish Rail is currently progressing that project.

It does have to be reviewed constantly to ensure there is no overlap or false synergies.

On the issue of the 51% targets, they are challenging beyond compare, as I stated, because transport emissions have been increasing historically and the distance travelled has increased. We could go further with electric vehicles but that would require incredible change in terms of purchasing habits. It is being considered. I recently had a meeting to examine that option but it is very challenging and ambitious. Similarly, in the context of increased usage of biofuel, biodiesel has land use implications which bring real difficulties. In the areas of freight and haulage, there is no obvious immediate alternative fuel to the diesel systems and so on that are currently being used.

The other difficulty with transport is that it takes time to effect change. Land use patterns are set and that is why it is so important to get housing and transport integrated now so that we meet the 2050 target, whatever about the 2030 target. In terms of meeting the 2050 target, we have looked at a variety of issues such as bringing down speed limits as a way of being more energy efficient. I will be honest; the initial research relating to that measure has indicated it would be of limited benefit in terms of the emissions reductions it would deliver.

That brings me back to the core message, which is that it is about reducing the overall demand for travel. What has happened during Covid may well help in that regard. Even though commuting only accounts for a quarter of overall journeys, if there is a 30% reduction in commuting because people are working from home after Covid, that accounts for a good chunk and a real saving as well as providing a benefit to people's quality of life in terms of them not being stuck commuting.

It also comes back to being really ambitious on active travel and a switched modal shift. I absolutely believe that is possible. If we created a safe route network for schoolchildren to walk or cycle to school, that would reduce the 30% of morning rush hour traffic made up of children being driven to school. If we really went at that issue, it would benefit everyone. It would benefit parents as they would not be stuck in traffic and it would make kids healthier. It would make for a far more pleasant local environment with much better air quality and significant health benefits. My sense is that it is an issue that does not divide us. There is broad cross-party support for the investment we are making in active travel, so-----

I want to bring in one more speaker and we are caught on time.

I think it is possible but it will require change beyond compare, particularly in terms of a modal shift and the reduced amount of travel we will do.

I call Deputy Ó Murchú.

I apologise for missing part of the meeting. I had to attend a meeting of another committee. I wish to return to the specific issue of post offices. An interdepartmental group is to be established between the Minister's Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. On the issue of its remit, I know it is due to report in July. Obviously, it will look at which services post offices can operate from a governmental point of view. Beyond that, I refer to the Minister's earlier remarks regarding being supportive of the possibility of a community banking-type model and even looking at whether there is a requirement for a public service obligation levy or whatever from the point of view of producing a model that will deliver for post offices because post offices have delivered for us in the past. As a result of the problems in banking-----

There are four minutes left in the meeting and I want to bring in one other contributor.

I presume the Deputy is referring to the former Minister, Deputy Naughten. There was a press release in that regard which has informed the Deputy of our latest thinking on that issue. I was not sure whether I could mention it earlier. I agree with the Deputy there is a real issue. There was an interim agreement between the post offices and An Post. As I mentioned, Turlough O'Donnell mediated a very good solution and there were interim payments associated with that to allow us through a transition period which is coming to a close. However, we do not have the necessary business in place. Covid has completely undermined footfall and business in a variety of ways. We do not want the post office network to contract further, so the Government has today decided to make continuing support available and to set up the review group to which the Deputy referred in which various Departments will come together. It is about looking at a variety of different services we could try to deliver. That is not new. It is something that has been talked about-----

I wish to bring in another speaker. The meeting must finish in two minutes as a result of the Covid restrictions.

It is about looking at a variety of public services, particularly State services that we could develop to assist the business case of post offices.

Is everything on the table?

I call Senator Craughwell.

I thank the Chairman for allowing me in. The western rail corridor was mentioned by many members. Having driven trucks all over the country, I was having nightmares listening to the Minister describe various towns such as Tipperary. There is massive------

The Senator needs to get to the point more quickly.

-----potential in the north west in terms of both tourism and cargo, such as lo-lo freight, in linking towns as far as way as Ballina and Letterkenny all the way to Cork. Has the possibility of some sort of joint venture or public private partnership been explored, particularly in the context of opening up places such as Westport and Clifden? I can see significant potential for green tourism in that area.

Going back to the foundation of the State, there were private railways. Has the Minister considered public private partnerships in that regard?

I have not, but I think the western rail corridor will feature in the wider rail review. Going back to the Chairman's remarks in respect of connectivity on the west coast, I see the western rail corridor running, in effect, from Waterford right the way up to Ballina. To get to Letterkenny would be another step, but why not think big? We have the line running up to------

How long will the rail review take?

It will take several months. It will be completed later in the year. I mention that because of the potential of freight development in particular. It will not be easy or certain and the distances involved in travel in this country are short. It would require a significant change in transport patterns, but I include it as one of the prospects at which we should look along the entire western rail corridor from Waterford up through towns such as Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Cahir, Bansha and Tipperary town and all the way to Ballina.

We are very lucky to have a Minister who is prepared to consider all the possibilities. I think it would do significant things for the west in particular and for tourism.

I thank the Minister and his officials for their attendance and engagement with the committee in the Dáil Chamber. I hope it was productive. Many views were exchanged and there is a lot more work to be done. The meeting is adjourned. The next meeting of the joint committee will be a private virtual meeting at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 10 March 2021.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.30 p.m. sine die.
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