ORIGINAL plans to develop a Northern Ring Road in Cork are now 15 years old but the vital piece of infrastructure has almost completely fallen off the map.
With a boom in housing developments on the northside, grumblings to make the road a priority are starting to grow.
While the planning documents for the €500m original Northern Ring Road lie in a dusty folder somewhere in Government buildings, projects to upgrade the Dunkettle Interchange, the Macroom bypass, the N28 to Ringaskiddy and even the Limerick to Cork motorway have all gathered pace.
Hopes were high that the Northern Ring Road would be included in the Government’s 2040 Project Ireland capital plan. While it did feature, it was a mere footnote and a seemingly piecemeal concession.
The first designs for the road were drawn up in 2004 and were broken into three phases.
Phase one proposed linking up the N22 Ballincollig bypass with the N20 Mallow Road, while Phase two included a link to the N20 from the existing North Ring Road. Phase 3 would see the Northern Ring linked to the N8 Dublin Road.
In 2007, the National Road Authority (now Transport Infrastructure Ireland) announced a €500m route for the Northern Ring, with 10km of dual carriageway from Ballincollig to Carrigrohane, which would join up with the N20.
Phase three of this has been included in the Government’s capital plans but this will only unlock the eastern side of Cork’s transport ring. The western corridor from Glanmire to Ballincollig’s Poulavone roundabout is likely to remain without a natural link for several years to come.
The sole prohibitive issue, it appears, is the cost of the project.
A complete Northern Ring Road would join the M8 from the toll booth at Watergrasshill to the Poulavone Roundabout in Ballincollig and the N22.
Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) has already drawn up these plans. This route would allow motorists to travel across the county from the Cork to Dublin motorway at Watergrasshill to Rathpeacon, connecting with the Cork to Mallow road.
It would then go across the outskirts of the city to the Poulavone Roundabout in Ballincollig.
The South Ring N25 could be joined up with the N22 - creating a full motorway ring link around the city.
Two matters have led to increased calls for the motorway over the last few months.
Traffic congestion on the northside of the city has been exacerbated in recent months by accidents happening elsewhere. If a collision occurs on the South Ring and takes a period of time to be cleared, this can lead to a knock-on effect in almost every other part of the city as there is no natural diversion relief route for traffic.
Secondly, a number of housing developments are planned on the city’s northside which could dramatically increase the population of areas like Blackpool and Whitechurch as the northside begins a process of regeneration that could see it transformed within the next decade.
The former Sunbeam factory site just off the Commons Road is set to be turned into a housing development but local representatives have expressed concerns about traffic levels in Blackpool.
News that construction work on 80 new homes at the former Sunbeam Factory site is set to begin in the spring was widely welcomed but City Hall has been warned that a traffic plan needs to be implemented to account for a number of new housing developments slated for the area.
Respond Housing Association will deliver over 80 units at Redforge Road with site works due to begin in January. There are also plans for a 28-home project at Thomas Davis Street and 112 flats on the site of the old Blackpool flats.
Local Fianna Fáil Councillor Ken O’Flynn said the new housing units mean it is time to again raise the issue of the North Ring Road with central Government.
“It is about time that we address the problem of the Northern Ring Road. We need to get it back on the table,” says Mr O’Flynn.
“It simply must be looked at with the amount of private infrastructure, private investment and public investment on the northside of the city,” he added.
In addition, the Old Whitechurch Road site is the biggest landbank owned by Cork City Council and will provide up to 600 homes on the 22-hectare site in the next four years.
Another 170 homes are due to be built following grants by central Government to provide the necessary infrastructure and services around them under the Serviced Sites Fund.
More than €4.9m has been allocated for a creche and site works to include the realignment of the road at Boherboy Road in Mayfield to facilitate 150 homes which will encompass affordable housing, cost rental properties and social housing.
At Kilmore Road in Churchfield, €1.4m has been set aside for ancillary works, water mains relocation and road realignment for an affordable housing project for over 20 homes.
Another 200 homes are slated for the site of the former Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well.
With an excess of 1,000 homes in the offing for the northside alone and with over 6,000 people employed at Apple’s Holyhill campus it appears that the Northern Ring Road is one of the most vital parts of the infrastructure jigsaw that Cork needs going into the future.
However, Sinn Féin Councillor Thomas Gould believes it will be another decade, at the very least, before construction begins on the route. He says the northside has been “forgotten about” and wants firm commitments that the road will eventually be built.
“There has been increasing traffic chaos on the northside lately. All it takes is one accident and the city comes to a standstill,” he says.
“We have a situation on the northside where there will be tailbacks down Cathedral Road and all because there is no Northern Ring Road. The worst thing about it is it is not in any capital development plan. There is only a small piece of it included in the development of the Dunkettle Interchange. I believe it will be another 10 years before we see it – if we ever see it at all.
“There was originally a North Ring Road in the offing but when the recession hit, Fianna Fáil took it out of the Capital Plan and it has never gone back in. There’s a small section connecting the Dublin Road to the Mallow Road. There’s nothing to Blarney, nothing to Ballincollig. There are no plans and no finance so even if they put it in the capital plan tomorrow it would be years before anything happened. The sad part of all this is I don’t see it being developed under the Government or Fianna Fáil in the next decade.
“The funny thing is, TD Billy Kelleher has recently called for it but it was his party that took it out and they have done nothing to get it back in. There are Fianna Fáil councillors in City Hall calling for it and I ask them if they are codding with us. They are the people that took it out and they are now pushing the Government to get it back in. They are playing on both sides of the fence.
“The question for Cork TDs in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is why is Cork being forgotten about again? We have big articulated trucks driving through residential areas. Do we have to wait until somebody is seriously hurt or there is complete gridlock for something to be done?”
Former Lord Mayor and Fianna Fáil councillor Tony Fitzgerald has long been outspoken on the issue and believes the section of the Northern Ring Road included in the Government’s capital plan is simply not enough.
“I was very disappointed when the 2040 National Development Plan was announced by the Government. It is my understanding that the Northern Ring Road wasn’t given much attention.
“At the last minute, they included a section at the Dunkettle roundabout. If we want a city that can thrive in the advent of the city boundary extension, we need to address the imbalance of the infrastructure on the northside of the city to allow for potential growth for both retail and industrial trade and housing developments.
“We’ve seen the expansion of Apple and there will be further growth there. We’ve had an increase in retail trade on the northside as a result of the regeneration programme developed by Cork City Council. In recent times, we’ve seen major interest in housing developments both in the Old Whitechurch Road and at Boherboy Road in Mayfield.
“There is planning permission at the Good Shepherd Convent and the inclusion of St Kevin’s in the land registration development. While all of those are very positive and we are delighted with the growth and the economic development that’s happening, there are lots of concerns at how the infrastructure and access to these developments will add to the economic growth on the northside.
“The lack of interest and the lack of priority brings disappointment and this is an ongoing concern. It is something that simply must be addressed immediately if we want to allow for the potential that the northside has to develop, which I think we can.
“There are final planning documents for affordable housing units on the Kilmore Road and Boherboy Road. Planning permission is in place at both locations. If you add all those developments into the mix, you are talking about the advent of a huge population growth in the area but unfortunately there isn’t enough joined-up thinking and that must at all times include the Northern Ring Road,” he adds.
In its 2018 pre-budget submission, Cork Chamber described the road as “key” to Cork’s economic progression and identified it as one of the main capital infrastructure projects that must be progressed if Cork is going to grow at a sustainable rate.
“In order to maintain and grow our national competitiveness and build on the strong economic turnaround witnessed in the past three years, State spending on capital investment must be increased. If we are to be in a position to compete with our European neighbours, we need to increase the level of GDP invested in infrastructure to at least 4%.
“Ireland’s infrastructure has suffered from years of underspend relative to our key competitors. Consequently, we are constantly playing catch up. This needs to change,” the document states.
The Cork 2050 document developed by Cork City and County Council’s highlighted the importance of the Northern Ring Road to provide access to the northern city environs and relieve pressure off the N40 and Dunkettle Interchange. In the original route corridor selection report by Tony Fleming, senior engineer at the Roads and Transportation Division at Cork City Council, and Edmond Flynn, county engineer at Cork County Council, they outlined a clear need for the route to be built.
The reports stated that it would “improve the reliability of the road transport system by removing bottlenecks, remedying capacity deficiencies and reducing absolute journey times and journey time variance” and would also “improve internal road transport infrastructure between regions and within regions contribute to the competitiveness of the productive sector and foster balanced regional development”.
The report added that the Northern Ring would facilitate better access to and from the main ports and airports and contribute to sustainable transport policies, facilitating continued economic growth and regional development while ensuring a high level of environmental protection. It was also stated in the report that the Northern Ring would help achieve the objectives of the Government’s Road Safety Strategy in relation to the reduction in fatalities and serious injuries caused by road accidents.
While there is continued frustration in Cork about a perceived lack of action from central Government on the Northern Ring Road, Minister of Transport Shane Ross said it will be considered by the bodies responsible for delivering infrastructure in a new document that is being drawn up regarding Cork’s transport strategy.
Fianna Fáil TD Billy Kelleher raised the issue in the Dáil earlier this month. He said the proposed Cork to Limerick motorway will spit motorists out into roads that are centuries old and not fit for purpose.
“The fact of the matter is that it is planned to build a motorway that will run into 19th-century roads. We have no proper orbital route on the north side of the city,” he said.
“Such a route is needed for many logical reasons, most importantly, the greater development not just of the north side of Cork city but of the region as a whole.
“The region depends completely on the tunnel as the only way of moving from north to south. As I have said, all of the main infrastructure - the deepwater ports and the airport - is in the southern part of the region. If anything were to happen to the tunnel, it could have catastrophic consequences for the economic development and the continued growth of the area,” he added.
Minister Ross replied: “The National Development Plan makes it clear that the Cork local authorities, in partnership with the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, are finalising a Cork metropolitan area transport strategy. [It] includes a number of commitments in respect of transport in Cork.
“It is expected to identify the need for schemes such as the Cork north ring road, as well as the possible timelines for such schemes. This project is not off the agenda...it is being considered. There is a reference to it in the National Development Plan,” he added.
The matter of developing the Northern Ring Road, it seems, is not quite yet a dead end. Indeed, many more miles will have to be travelled before a consensus to develop it is reached between Cork representatives and the Government.
Rob McNamara examines what impact a Northern Ring Road could have for the entire city north of the Lee.