I was delighted to see the announcement last week that construction of the proposed expressway from the M22 at Randalstown to the A31 Magherafelt bypass (the “Castledawson Roundabout) will proceed this year.
This particular stretch is one I have long campaigned for, because:
- it is the narrowest and most dangerous stretch of the Belfast-Derry road (particularly the “Moneynick” section east of Toome);
- the road actually serves not just the North West but also Mid Ulster, so it assists a significant section of the population; and
- construction will relieve a very particular daily congestion black spot (again, at Moneynick).
However, there is a problem. The new road will be expressway all the way (i.e. left entry/exit only with entirely “grade-separated junctions”, i.e. bridges/flyovers on roads crossing it) except at Toome. Although the initial proposals for the new expressway involved removal of the roundabouts on the Toome Bypass (which should never have been constructed on the main line of the road in the first place), this was subsequently revised to leave two in place. This is an astonishing lack of foresight, because traffic which is almost universally passing Toome will have to compete, twice, with traffic going in and out of the village and to minor adjoining roads. It does not take a genius to work out that this will inevitably create a significant bottleneck, as it will restrict the ability of the mainline to flow. Thus, the congestion on the current road will be relieved, but not eliminated (as it would be if the roundabouts were removed).
Therefore, constructing the road as currently planned will inevitably lead to calls to remove the roundabouts (relatively easily doable simply by constructing an overhead bridge at the two roundabouts and connecting west-facing slip roads at one and east-facing at the other). It will in fact be more expensive to leave it to later – to construct the new expressway (actually new expressways, as there will in effect be one either side of the existing Toome Bypass) and subsequently return on a different contract to sort out the roundabouts will cost much more in terms of time and money than it would have done just to construct the lot (including roundabout removal) at once.
The fundamental error “Transport NI” is making here is placing the focus solely on capacity, rather than flow. It has already made such a mistake, in carrying out the A12 Westlink underpasses without at the same time sorting out the York Street lights. The basics even of traffic light phasing require consideration of flow as well as capacity (indeed a roundabout on the A2 Bangor “Ring” Road has recently been converted to add lights precisely to aid the flow). This basic principle is hardly new – the M1 in Co Armagh still does the job half a century on precisely because such foresight was displayed then. Why not now?!
None of this should delay construction of the new A6 expressway because it will still have safety and capacity advantages. But, as work gets under way, it would be prudent to reconsider and change the decision not to remove the Toome roundabouts. They will be removed eventually – why not just remove them now, and maximise the benefit for the millions of our money being allocated to this otherwise worthy project?
The fact is this is a second rate road – albeit replacing a fifth rate road. We seem to accept this too easily in Northern Ireland – with nearly all public services, well beyond roads. But really, we should by now be expecting first rate. It is time to raise our ambitions and expectations!