No sooner had the CEO of Belfast International Airport tweeted that a crash on the main A57 road from the M2 to the airport demonstrated his case for a dual carriageway, Assembly candidates were lining up to agree – indeed, one first-time candidate for the local constituency instantly called for a motorway.
They thus demonstrated the whole problem with Northern Ireland politics. As soon as someone calls for something, politicians and would-be politicians are climbing over each other to agree. Yet, once they have attained office, they find it isn’t quite so easy… no wonder so many people thing politicians are dishonest!
To be clear, such an upgrade is not a bad idea. But it is not programmed; it is very complex; and in any case it shows a false priority between road construction and road maintenance.
It is a duty of candidates, before making pledges, to do some research into how viable they are. Even a cursory piece of research would have demonstrated that there is zero chance of a significant upgrade to the road from the motorway to the airport this decade, and almost zero even in the next decade. In fact, on this very blog, I provided the current list of programmed primary road projects in Northern Ireland just three months ago – these take us essentially to the end of the 2020s, and the A57 airport road does not appear.
Of course, a future Infrastructure Minister could decide to re-prioritise, and take a project off the list, replacing it with the A57. Yet a cursory look at Assembly debates and party statements notes that absolutely no one has seriously suggested this – there is the odd reference to an upgrade but no reference whatsoever to which project would be removed from the programme to enable it.
Were an upgraded road to the airport to be prioritised, it would become quite complex. It is far from clear that such a road should run along the current alignment of the A6/A57 from M2 J5 (at Templepatrick/Ballymartin) to the airport. In fact, there is perhaps a better case for a route from somewhere near J4 Sandyknowes (this would require the construction of an additional junction roughly where the new Templepatrick Services are, and in fact such a junction is proposed in the longer term for all kinds of reasons); or perhaps even from between J5 and J6 (near Parkgate). Either of these options would make it considerably easier to bypass Templepatrick with a high-speed road without causing significant public protest (and thus delaying the whole thing until well into the 2030s). In other words, it is not at all straightforward, which is one reason it is not programmed!
There is another problem here, which is that for all the understandable excitement about grand projects like the A12 York Street interchange or the A6 Moneynick upgrade, funding is being cut back from basic maintenance. Many readers in Northern Ireland will already have noticed street lights going unrepaired; resurfacing projects being delayed; even still road side verges going untreated.
While we protect funding for an unreformed education and health system and push for more and more grand infrastructure projects (hands up on the latter!), we are omitting many of the basics.
It is the basics the politicians (and those who would be politicians) need to get right. Meanwhile, beware anyone promoting a motorway to the airport. There hasn’t been a motorway constructed in Northern Ireland for over 20 years – and the maintenance of the ones we have is going under-resourced. Let’s fix what we have first…