Wasting Money on Roads

An interesting little scrap has broken out between An Taisce and the NRA. As reported in the Irish Times yesterday, An Taisce has accused the NRA of using false data, while the Irish Independent reports that the NRA dismisses the criticism.

The criticism by An Taisce refers to traffic projections which are now seven years old, and the fact that traffic volumes have been falling. The NRA counters that roads are build with a longer time horizon in mind. While I agree with the NRA that roads are build with a longer time horizon in mind, it is nevertheless true that the projections are seriously out of date and that the starting position has changed significantly. Furthermore, there are at least some schemes, which are grossly over designed. An Taisce points to  a refusal for planning permission for a dual carriageway between Bohola and Ballina, because the NRA apparently failed to support the project on traffic grounds.

Unfortunately gold-plating of projects is not unusual. In the ESRI Mid-Term Evaluation of NDP 2000-2006 we pointed out that “roads with capacity of 55,500 AADT, or anywhere near it, appear to be a significant overdesign for the numerous lightly-trafficked sections of the N8 and N9”. Such schemes cannot pass a reasonable cost-benefit analysis when compared to more appropriately sized schemes. Unfortunately, the lesson does not seem to have been learned and the tax payer is expected to pay for overdesign again (the fact that some of the schemes are PPPs is irrelevant here as these also have to be paid for by tax payers).

Take the example of the N2, for which there are two proposed schemes in the system. I have already referred to the idiotic scheme to by-pass Slane where the key issue could be simply dealt with via a HGV ban.

The second scheme is in North Monaghan, where a by-pass of Monaghan and Emyvale to dual carriageway standard is being pursued. Interestingly Monaghan has already been by-passed and anyone who knows the road also knows that there is no danger of congestion except through Emyvale (for which a by-pass is likely to be supported by some analysis). Traffic counts bear this out – average total volumes (north and southbound) for 2010 amount to 5,413 AADT. Why then are we building for 35,000 AADT – almost seven times the current volume? Further south, the section between Castleblaney and Clontibret has been upgraded to 2+1, and further south still between the M1 and Castleblaney a wide 2 lane road is perfectly sufficient to achieve the target level of service (80km/h) – both of these sections of road carry a higher level of traffic than that, which is supposed to be upgraded to dual-carriageway standard. 

The construction costs of a dual carriageway are 82% higher (according to the NRA Road Needs Study) than for a wide 2 lane road – can we really afford such goldplated schemes?

Wasting money on roads?

A number of stories on roads funding have been in the media over the last few weeks.

Firstly, Frank McDonald in a piece in the Irish Times had a go at the motorway building programme of the NRA. In particular he criticises the plans for the Slane bypass (N2 Dublin to Derry). That story was also picked up in Today FM’s Last Word (Matt Cooper) last Thursday.

The rationale for the bypass project involving a new bridge over the river Boyne is straightforward. Currently a significant volume of traffic of which about a quarter is HGVs (some 1600 per day) negotiate the steep valley on both sides of the river which is crossed via a narrow bridge. The nature of the roads has been blamed for a number of serious accidents involving HGVs, and hence the bypass is to be built to reduce accidents.

But why are there so many HGVs on a road connecting Ashbourne (population 6500) with Ardee (population 4000)? The answer is simple once on considers that the N2 runs almost parallel to the tolled M1, which is both quicker and safer. In other words the HGVs are on the N2 to avoid the toll, and now the tax payer is going to help them avoid the toll by building a new expensive bridge and dual carriageway. The simple, cheap and obvious solution to the problem of HGVs going through Slane is to ban them from doing so, as I argued in May 2009. This would also avoid all the hassle of forcing a major construction project through an area rich in archaeological sites and historic significance. I wonder is this a case for the Comptroller and Auditor General?

Secondly, on the 22nd of February Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey announced €411.408 million for 2010 Regional & Local Roads Programme. Of course the Minister did not announce any extra resources, rather he is reprofiling expenditure that was to go to road improvement. Given the damage to many roads due to the flooding in the autumn and the frost over the winter most people will welcome these resources.

But is this money going to be well spent? When it comes to potholes it is curious how they always appear in the same places, and often they are back soon after they were filled. Likewise, the same stretches of road (surprisingly many for a country where rain is not uncommon) are also subject to flooding on a regular basis, with consequent road damage. It is also peculiar that our road surfaces melt at the first sign of the sun (even over recent poor summers), again leading to significant damage.

In that context engineering and material standards should be reviewed in order to minimise future damage and costs before spending €400 million on repairing roads.

I am not against spending money on roads – anyone who has read my work on public investment will know that – but we should make sure we use the scarce resources we put into roads to best use.