Construction of the A8 Ballynure Bypass was completed yesterday as part of the overall new expressway linking Newtownabbey (and northern Greater Belfast) to the outskirts of Larne.
Coming in at over £100 million, there has rightly been some debate about whether this particular road project offers real value for money (rightly, in the sense that good, open debate is healthy).
There is the argument, which in fact I personally would endorse in theory, that there were other more deserving projects – the A6 at Moneynick (between Randalstown and Toome) being the most obvious. However, what happened simply was that during the Celtic Tiger the Irish Government suggested it would fund half (not least in its own interests, as a main freight link from Dublin to Scotland) and thus preparation work was prioritised on that assumption. The money will never be forthcoming now, of course, but the NI Executive decided to proceed anyway given that the project was ready to go sooner than others, having been so prioritised. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible.
Then there is the argument that £100 million should not be spent on such projects at all, most commonly presented as “£100 million to save just five minutes’ journey time”. Let us look at that:
– the time alone is on average in good traffic five minutes; that is, five minutes each way; and that may mount up over a period of time (a commuter from Mallusk to Larne over one year thus saves around 32 hours – two full waking days – a year).
– that time also assumes good traffic; but a new dual carriageway also assists (and accounts for a much vaster time saving) in the case of delays and accidents, both in that they become rarer (dual carriageways with barriers are safer roads) and in that minor accidents or breakdowns do not block the entire carriageway.
– the issue is not just “time”, but also stress; studies have shown definitively that driving on dual carriageways and particularly expressways (we’ll come to that) consumes less concentration, and thus less mental energy (and thus cause less stress, not least to freight drivers).
Expressways (officially known as “Category 6” or “Category 7” dual carriageways), sometimes known as “semi-motorways” in the UK (Continental travellers may be familiar with “voie express” as opposed to “autoroute” in France or “autovia” as opposed to “autopista” in Spain), bring all the benefits of the dual carriageways but make them more pronounced. They allow entrance and exit only to the left (known as “limited access”) with junctions which then all take the form of overpasses or underpasses (known as “grade-separated junctions”), thus prioritising forward movement at all times and not allowing any traffic to cross the carriageway. This makes them hugely safer (as there can be no head-on collisions of any time) and a lot easier to navigate (as it is simply a matter of knowing which junction to leave at).
Expressways have the arguable further benefit of being a cheaper option than motorways because they do not automatically prohibit low-power vehicles and thus do not need a specific alternative route; therefore, they can largely be built “online” (i.e. by dualling an existing road and reconstructing its junctions) rather than as an entirely new road. Category 6 expressways do not have an emergency lane (“hard shoulder”) either. This does, however, bring with it the limitation that not all traffic is kept separate from high-speed vehicles – tractors and even bicycles may be left to compete for space on the same carriageway as cars at 70mph passing lorries at 50mph. Nevertheless, on a relatively low-volume route (as this is, with around 17,000 vehicles per day, although that number will now rise), this can be a reasonable compromise (and restrictions on type of traffic may be placed on expressways, as they are on the A12 Westlink in Belfast; they are just not automatic as they are with motorways).
One further specific benefit of expressways is that, because junctions are dotted out as with motorways, they tend not to suffer “planning creep” as they are not easily accessible. They are designed specifically to move traffic from one large location to another (rather than allowing them access at every hole in the hedge). This is distinct even from non-expressway dual carriageways, which by nature allow new developments and commercial centres to spring up at all points alongside them, soon rendering them hopeless for long-distance traffic while also leading to unsustainable communities of detached shops and houses with no real centre or hub.
Therefore, I would argue strongly that the A8 expressway will bring very significant benefits to the Larne area and the Belfast-Larne corridor and few disadvantages. It will protect the countryside between Newtownabbey and Larne from encroachment while making Larne Town itself (and its hinterland):
– more viable as a commuter town, thus increasing its potential as a residential option;
– more easily accessible (not just in terms of speed, note above); and
– more attractive for freight, ultimately enhancing trade from across the island of Ireland with Scotland in particular.
I’d say that’s £100 million (only £25 million a year for each year of construction on average) very well spent.