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Irish Politics

Can we learn from the Metrolink fiasco as to how things should and should not be done?

The leaking of a decision to scrap the incorporation of the Luas Green Line into the Metrolink project is welcome but raises important questions about the way in which important infrastructural development decisions are made.

We were told some months ago that the planning of the project had already cost €170 million when the so-called public consultation on the project started.

That such a vast sum could be expended on any project before its outline was even the subject of public consultation or political approval as part as part of the State’s long-term capital programme is simply staggering.

While the entire sum was not spent by any means on the southern Green line incorporation part of the project, and while some of it undoubtedly will be rescued if the northern City centre airport and Swords leg of the project is proceeded with, it is very, very clear that the NTA needs to be made accountable and amenable to prudent  financial planning and control.

Instead of spending €170 million on detailed planning and then seeking outline approval from the public and the Oireachtas, it should have been possible to spend say one or two million euro on a high-level project plan and then to seek approval for the expenditure of €170 million on the detailed planning of the project as approved – if it were approved.

But that didn’t happen. Why not?

One of the most frustrating aspects of the fiasco is that there were well-developed alternatives such as the cross city Dart underground line and several surface Luas lines which have been shelved effectively in favour of Metrolink.

Whatever the comparative merits of those projects, you would imagine that they should all have been subject to a comparative public consultation process before one of them was chosen at the expense of the others. Capital resources are finite. To use them in an optimal way involves making choices. To make choices involves considering the alternatives. To consider the alternatives involves knowing what they are and what their implications are.

How much has been spent to date on planning the shelved cross-city Dart underground scheme?

Recently An Bord Pleanala refused Dublin City Council permission for a new Liffey bridge on the grounds that it would compromise the shelved underground Dart plan. Is the underground Dart plan dead? Or is it part of the great undead - the vampire projects lurking in the shadows and the crypts of the State sucking the blood of the innocent taxpayer?

Is there any democratic control of these infrastructural planners? If Dublin or Greater Dublin was a real municipality with elected councillors, decisions of these types would be made on the basis of an open and transparent dialogue between elected and accountable members of local and central government.

Instead we are left with a kind of organic policy development by unknown and unaccountable persons and bodies.

The so-called public consultation process that preceded the scrapping of the southern leg of Metrolink was a sham. It was a sales job for the decisions already made at the cost of €170 million.

Ridiculous estimates of the likely close-down period for the Green Luas line were peddled to the public. Three months and six months were mentioned. Buses would move displaced Green Line Luas passengers as commuters in and out of the city during those short periods.

The truth was that every Luas halt on the affected part of the Green Line would have had to be rebuilt as a metro station for high-speed, high-floor driverless trains programmed to stop at glass-walled platform with sliding panels facing the doors on the trains.

All pedestrian crossings and access to the stations and lines would have had to be cut off.

The Metrolink service would not have gone as far as the new urban centres being constructed at Cherrywood anf Brides Glen. A fragment of the Luas system would have operated between Sandyford and those destinations.

The fact that the recently-opened cross-city Luas line from St Stephen’s Green to Broombridge would simply not have been built at a cost of €268 million if the Metrolink project had come first should not be forgotten either.

Is it a case of our narrowly avoiding another yet public expenditure calamity on the scale of the Children’s Hospital?

Yes and No.

The entire Metrolink project came with a €3 million price tag  Factor in delay, inflation and mission creep and you could well see a final price tag of €4 million on the entire project.  That is twice the Children’s Hospital budget at its worst.

What is the present planned cost of the cut-down northern leg of Metrolink? Does it budget for driverless trains? Are we to have a single-bore tunnel or a twin-tunnelled system?

What will happen to the tunnel-boring machine when it reaches Charlemont? Will it be left deep underground or will it be hoisted to the surface by a deep well-like structure such as we have seen in London’s Crossrail scheme?

Will the underground station at St Stephen’s Green be made so as to accommodate access to the cross-city Dart underground if it is ever built?

Have we abandoned all other potential Luas lines and/or metro routes to suburbs not served by anything except buses.

Is there a vision for Dublin’s entire public transport infrastructure for the next twenty years?

Undoubtedly many people will welcome the decision to scrap the cannibalisation of the Luas Green line as part of the Metro-madness. The news that the Green line could have been out of action for four years if some of the plans were implemented is horrifying. Who was working on those plans? Who bears responsibility for even considering them?

Surely we should now have a genuine public dialogue in which the principles are outlined and decided first. Surely we should have an opportunity to evaluate all the alternative strategies and plans together with their costs and implications.

But will this be a case of the planners simply skulking away with their tails between their legs cursing the fickleness of the public, vested interests, and a craven political class – as they see it?

Or can we learn collectively from the outcome and turn a fiasco into valuable experience as to how things should and should not be done?

I am still optimistic that we will do better. But am I confident? Alas not.

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