Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 18, 2021

Lessons from history for the A5 WTC

A road scheme that has been in gestation for well over a decade, but without a metre of road built, despite huge sums of money being spent on design work. A scheme that, due to the huge cost, has been broken down into separate phases but, even then, attempts to begin work have been aborted several times. Multiple public inquiries have failed to settle the question of whether it should be built, while costs continue to rise. And, all the time, a roads authority that remains doggedly committed to constructing the whole thing, despite the escalating obstacles.

No, I am not talking about the A5 Western Transport Corridor (A5 WTC) in 2021, but the Belfast Urban Motorway in 1973. The parallels are striking, and from it we can learn lessons about the direction of the A5 WTC.

I spent several years exhaustively researching Belfast Urban Motorway, its origins, its many problems and its eventual demise (which I wrote up as a book). Those familiar with it will know that the Urban Motorway was eventually scaled down and only two sections, Westlink and the M3, were ever built – and even those were of a lower standard than originally planned. At the end of that book I outlined four key reasons why the Urban Motorway was never completed, and I’ll take each of these here and apply them to the A5 WTC here.

For those who want a quick primer on the A5 WTC, I have included one at the bottom of this blog.

Factor 1 – Timing

The development of the Belfast Urban Motorway coincided with a critical period of evolution in how the UK thought about roads. When it was approved for construction in 1968, there was relatively little public opposition. However a series of delays was caused by the Oil Crisis, the start of the Troubles and the excessive period of time needed to relocate residents from the path of the road. This meant that, by the time construction could actually begin, the public mood has shifted decisively, and the government was already stepping back from major new urban roads in other parts of the UK.

The A5 WTC, too, has come during a critical period of evolution. The scheme was first conceived in 2007, before critical events like the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and the 2020 declaration of a “Climate Emergency” by the Northern Ireland Executive. In that time, there has also been a growth in public awareness of the urgency of tackling climate change and there has been an increased focus on the role of sustainable transport.

In interim report on the A5 WTC produced by the public inquiry inspector, and published in March 2021, the Inspector concluded that “the A5 scheme is undeniably inconsistent with the ambition to decarbonise the economy“, that it “would have a large adverse effect on climate” and recommends that DFI “explain how it has taken account of the UK’s climate change commitments, including those set out in the Paris Agreement“.

Lest I be accused of over-stating this point, we must clarify that the Inspector does not have the power to alter the scheme, only to make recommendations, so none of the above actually ties the DFI’s hands to any particular course of action. But it does put the scheme on a collision course with climate policy, and it is obvious that the issue of climate change is likely to get more significant, rather than diminish, as the years go on. It is not hard to see this question ending up in the courts.

In addition, the Inspector spent a huge amount of time exploring environmental considerations in almost excruciating detail, and recommending the production of new documents. Environmental law as it now stands is such that the documentation for new roads must be both (a) up-to-date and (b) comprehensive, but in fact these two requirements stand in tension. The more comprehensive a document is, the longer it takes to produce. The more up-to-date it is, the more detail it needs to leave out. Both deficiencies can lead to successful legal challenges as we have seen. Some environmental documents that are currently “in date” will be out of date by the time DFI have carried out the new assessments that the inspector has recommended. The work DFI is now being asked to do in the area of the environment is so onerous that even a single new legal challenge will cause a sufficient delay to force them to be re-done, re-consulted and subjected to a new public inquiry. If DFI continues to proceed with the scheme in the most sensitive environmental areas, this will repeat endlessly and nothing will ever be built. Either the Assembly has to make the requirements under the law more manageable, or DFI have to admit that this is one battle they are not going to win. Perhaps both should be considered.

Factor 2 – Public Opposition

The Belfast Urban Motorway split opinion in the city. Opposition tended to come from the people who lived in the areas through which the road passed and their representatives, while support tended to come from those with business interests in the Belfast area, transport planners and politicians. My research suggests that opposition to the Urban Motorway was essentially local in nature, while the wider public was more indifferent or passively supportive. While opponents argued strongly in favour of better public transport, this was really motivated by a desire to stop the road more than it was a desire to encourage public transport. The two groups become more and more divided until it eventually morphed into an ideological confrontation.

This closely mirrors what has happen with the A5 WTC. Support has tended to come from politicians, users of the A5 – especially businesses – and the Department for Infrastructure. Opposition has tended to come from the the people who live in the areas through which the dual-carriageway will pass and their representatives, in this case the Alternative A5 Alliance (AA5A). And, just as in the 1970s, arguments being presented in favour of public transport by this demographic appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to stop the road, and only incidentally to encourage public transport use. After the last legal challenge was mounted in 2018 the head of the AA5A, John Dunbar, summarised his view thus: “Every time the thing is delayed, our farmers are getting more time to use their land. We’re quite happy to go with that“.

However, the most significant problem that arose in the 1970s was that the two sides of the dispute were arguing different points. Those in favour of the urban motorway were arguing primarily on the grounds of economics and transport needs, while their opponents were arguing on social grounds and the impact of the scheme on communities and landscapes. The two sets of opinions were being framed through entirely different worldviews. There was therefore no objective way to weigh these two conflicting arguments against each other, which made compromise impossible. And, in the end, those for and against the Urban Motorway became increasingly associated with unionism and nationalism respectively which, in the context of a divided society, was a significant problem.

In the same way, the arguments being presented in favour of the A5 WTC are primarily economic and transport-led. And the arguments are very strong, as the public inquiry inspector concludes in his report. He writes that in terms of road safety the scheme would have a “significant beneficial effect on road safety“, which is an understatement given the appalling loss of life experienced on this road in the past decade. He went on to say that, if anything, DFI had under-stated the benefit of the scheme in terms of journey time reliability, noting that DFI described “the journey time reliability benefits of the scheme as slight” but “that a 36% reduction in journey time would be a substantial saving“. He also concluded that the scheme “would make a significant beneficial contribution towards maintaining balanced infrastructure provision across the region“, would have “a significant beneficial effect on North/South links” and would have “a large beneficial effect on economic competitiveness“. The economic and road safety argument seems to be pretty solid.

Yet opposition to the road does not address any of these points, but rather opens up new ones. The Inspector concluded that the scheme would have “a significant adverse effect on the cultural heritage“, mainly archaeology and listed buildings and monuments, “a large adverse effect on the landscape“, mostly by altering the appearance of the countryside in major ways, “a significant adverse effect on flora and fauna“, “a significant adverse effect on human beings by reason of noise and vibration” and “a significant adverse effect on material assets“, ie homes, farms and businesses along the route. As if this wasn’t negative enough, the inspector berates DFI for concluding that the combined impact of all of the above would be “moderate adverse cumulative effects” for people in specific areas (especially around Strabane). He concluded instead that “the scheme would have large adverse effects on human beings living in the vicinity of Ballymagorry, Strabane and adjacent parts of Donegal, Sion Mills and Newtownsaville.” The social and environmental impact of the road is clearly negative.

The inspector perceptively notes that the positive impacts of the scheme are taken into consideration in the benefit/cost analysis (basically, will it generate more money than it costs) whereas the negative environmental impacts are not (because by their nature they cannot be monetised). So, while overall the project has a positive benefit/cost ratio (BCR), the inspector says “[the negative environmental] effects, although mentioned in the appraisal, did not contribute to the BCR calculations. Had it been possible to monetise these effects, the final [value for money] category might well have been different” – surely implying “less beneficial”.

This scheme, too, has become divided on sectarian grounds with the nationalist majority in the West more likely to support it than unionists. This means that people supporting the scheme are often labelled by unionists as supporting a “white elephant” or a “political project” while those criticising it are often suspected by nationalists as serving the needs of “unionists trying yet again to kill off a project in the west”. In fact, both sides in the debate have solid arguments in their favour.

How is the inspector to proceed? In fact, he has concluded that he cannot do so at this point in time. He says “I conclude that it would be unfair and unreasonable to make a decision to proceed with any part of the scheme for which funding had not been secured.” Given that funding has not been secured for the majority of the A5 WTC scheme, this is a very significant comment and one that is likely to come up again when the public inquiry resumes next year. As I have already said, the public inquiry inspector can only make recommendations, and does not have the power to change the scheme, but it would be hard for DFI to justify rejecting a major recommendation like this if it finds its way into the final report late next year.

Factor 3 – Inertia

The Belfast Urban Motorway increasingly suffered from inertia from the late 1960s, and much of this was due to its very restrictive terms of reference. The scheme designers had been told to develop an elevated urban motorway ring encircling the city centre. They were given no freedom to consider alternative approaches to solving the city’s traffic problems, and little freedom even to assess its route, and understandably did not do either. By 1968 revised traffic figures were available that demonstrated conclusively that half of the proposed ring (the south and east flanks) were not necessary and could be removed without significantly affecting the scheme’s goals. Yet, the planners responded that the scheme was “always envisaged as a ring” and resisted all attempts to change it. Essentially, the planners pressed ahead with their original plan even as evidence mounted up that parts of it no longer made sense. This made the scheme more and more susceptible to rational counter-argument as time went on.

In a similar way, the A5 WTC scheme was first designed a decade ago and the design has remained largely unchanged since then. The cost of the scheme has soared, from £560m as of 2007, to £844m as of 2009, £1bn as of 2016 and £1.2bn today, partly due to the inexorable effect of construction inflation. In addition, the soaring costs continually diminish the economic benefits of the road. The economic benefits of any road scheme are calculated from the direct impact of journey time savings, the economic benefit of prevented crashes, the wider economic benefits to the surrounding area and various other benefits. Against these are set the construction cost and the ongoing maintenance cost. While economics is not the only justification for building a road, for a project to make economic sense, the benefits must obviously be greater than the cost.

A benefit/cost ratio (BCR) is calculated by dividing the value of the economic benefits by the value of the costs. Any value greater than 1 means the project makes economic sense; anything less than 1 means the project does not make economic sense.

The inquiry inspector’s report suggests that, with the escalating costs, every section of the A5 WTC now has a BCR value of less than 1 with the exception of the Strabane Bypass and the Omagh Bypass. Phase 1a (Newbuildings to north of Strabane) has a BCR of 0.86, Phase 1b (south of Omagh to Ballygawley) has a BCR of 0.77, and Phase 3 (Ballygawley to Aughnacloy) has a BCR of 0.60. Only Phase 2 (north of Strabane to south of Omagh) has a BCR greater than 1 (3.37), but even this is only the case due to the two town bypasses. The inspector adds that “the Project Sponsor acknowledged that the greatest benefits would be realised in the bypass stretches of Phase 2, where the BCR might be above 5. He suggested that the BCR for the intermediate stretch was likely to be similar to that for Phases 1a and 1b, which I take to mean about 0.8“. Interestingly, the Inspector notes that when he asked for more specific data about the breakdown of breakdown of costs within phase 2 – which it was clear DFI had in their possession – in order to isolate the specific costs and benefits of the two town bypasses, “the Department, though so helpful in many other respects, did not provide these data“.

Ten years ago most of these stretches – except perhaps Phase 3 – likely had a BCR greater than 1, but the length of time that has gone on has now pushed almost all of them below 1. The inescapable conclusion is that most of the project no longer makes economic sense, insofar as even the wider economic benefits of an upgraded road on communities in the west of the province would not be sufficient to justify spending the money.

This may explain why DFI are determined to continue treating the A5 WTC as a single project. Only by combining all the sections into one, mammoth project can the overall average BCR value of the project be brought up to a value greater than 1. But to be fair to DFI, they are only doing so because they are acting on the direction of the DFI Minister, who is herself following the expressed will of the Northern Ireland Executive. So just like the Urban Motorway planners, DFI were given very restricted terms of reference (build a dual-carriageway along the entire A5) that prevents them from being able to treat it in any other way. As they say in their response to the interim report, “Both the NI Executive and the Irish government are committed to upgrading the A5WTC in full and the Department considers that it continues to be appropriate to implement that commitment“.

The scheme, therefore, is now displaying the same degree of inertia that the Belfast Urban Motorway was displaying in the early 1970s. Given that DFI must act under the authority of the Minister, only a Ministerial directive can change this situation.

Factor 4 – Money

The investment required to build the Belfast Urban Motorway was close to the limit of what the province could afford when it was given the go-ahead in 1968. After that, the economy suffered a significant hit due to the Oil Crisis and the Troubles, while construction inflation pushed the cost higher and higher. It took until 1974 before the government finally admitted that the project was now unaffordable and were forced to scale it back.

The A5 WTC has closely mirrored this. It was conceived in a time of economic prosperity, and even then could only be afforded as a result of the Irish government promising to stump up almost half of the estimated £844m cost, leaving Stormont to come up with £444m. The Irish government contribution has not increased in that time, and has in fact decreased due to the Great Recession of the last decade. With a total cost now of £1.2bn, Stormont would have to come up with at least £800m to complete the road – almost equal to the total estimated cost a decade ago – an enormous sum of money that will consume the road building budget for many years. With the scheme now delayed for at least two more years, the cost could easily reach £1.4bn by the time work begins on the ground. There is simply no way that the Executive could justify spending £1bn of money on a single road project in that scenario. Furthermore, the inspector notes that “it is likely that funding would be provided to start [the A5 WTC] but there is considerable doubt as to whether sufficient funds would become available to complete it by 2028.

Even if the Executive decide that they do want to progress the whole scheme, this will take many years of budget rounds to achieve, at which point the question of phasing comes into play. The Inspector quite rightly asks why Phase 1a (Newbuildings to north of Strabane) and Phase 1b (south of Omagh to Ballygawley) are being built first, when neither of them has a BCR above 1, and the one stretch that has a decent economic benefit is being left to a future date. DFI freely acknowledge that the phasing was a political decision, not an economic one. In other words, this is what the DFI Minister told them to do, rather than what they would have done if given the freedom to make the choice. There is nothing wrong with this situation, insofar as it is right and proper that DFI should act under the direction of elected representatives. But the decision does, at least, have to make sense.

DFI provided a rationale for the phasing at the inquiry, mostly depending on the argument that the full benefits of the scheme would not be achieved without all of it, that Phase 1a provided a number of small bypasses, and that phase 1b was a natural continuation of the A4. The Inspector was not convinced by these arguments. He said: “The [business case for building the road] presented the strange argument that while Phase 2 would generate the majority of benefits within the complete scheme, Phases 1a and 1b would act as “preparatory works” enabling the benefits of Phase 2 to be realised. To my mind, preparatory works are actions such as demolition of structures, diversion of highways or services, temporary construction, site preparation, archaeological and environmental site investigations, and decontamination. I do not accept that the benefits a 39-kilometre dual carriageway from the north of Strabane to the south of Omagh would be dependent on roads with a combined length of 37 kilometres being built first on either side.

I would agree that this rationale does not make sense, because it would suggest that when upgrading a road like the A1, A6 or A26, one should upgrade the least-trafficked sections first in order to achieve maximum gain, when in fact DFI and its predecessors has adopted the exact opposite strategy in almost every case for the past sixty years.

His conclusion was thus: “In my opinion, the reasons provided to date for the Department’s phasing choices have been inadequate. This must be put right in the interest of transparency. It also seems to me the Department must ensure that phasing is properly aligned with available funding so as to avoid inflicting unreasonable uncertainty and stress on people faced with the prospect of vesting.”

In fact it will be difficult for the department to “put right” the lack of rationale for the phasing decisions because we know that the decision was a political one made at a higher level. The rationale at that higher level may well be that – given that it is clear that the scheme is in economic difficulty – it is best to build the sections that have the least benefit first, because it is easier to argue for money to build a more beneficial section at a later date than it would be to try to get money for a less beneficial section. This strategy makes sense if the goal is to build the whole road and there is reasonable certainty that all the funding will be there, but given the economic appraisal discussed above, is another illustration of the degree of inertia that the project has now attained. If that is the strategy at a political level, it would be difficult for DFI to put such a rationale on public record.

However the inspector saves his most forceful comments for phase 3, the short section from Ballygawley to the Monaghan border at Aughnacloy. This stretch is also to be dualled despite having comparatively low traffic levels and there being no plan to dual the N2 on the Irish side of the border. It has been obvious to me for several years that this section makes no sense, and the inspector has come to the same conclusion. He notes that, given the high capacity of a dual-carriageway “even in 2043, the proposed road at this location would be operating at only 12% of its maximum capacity.” The stretch would cost £150m and require a lot of vested farmland, but cut less than a minute off the average journey, and save a notional 0.1 lives over the next 60 years. The inspector concludes “The poor return being forecast is relevant to the extent that it is symptomatic of overprovision. It is consistent with the other evidence which points inexorably to the conclusion that it would not be justifiable to proceed with Phase 3.

DFI, in their response, rejected this recommendation and have said they intend to proceed with the whole plan regardless. In my view this is an indefensible position to take. This, more than anything else in the inspector’s report and the department’s response, convinces me that the project is becoming divorced from reality.

What next?

What happened to the Belfast Urban Motorway is instructive when exploring what will happen next to the A5 WTC. The government was eventually forced to accept that the Motorway was unaffordable. In 1977 they abandoned the sections that had the least economic benefit, and focused on the two that did – the west tangent and the Lagan bridge. These were built in two phases over the next 21 years, being completed in 1998. While the Lagan Bridge was built more or less as planned, the west tangent was downgraded to a two-lane dual-carriageway. The decision to put roundabouts on it was a mistake that was finally rectified in 2009 but, other than this error, it largely achieved the project goals of linking the M1, M2 and Sydenham Bypass together.

How can we apply these lessons to the A5 WTC? These are my conclusions:

  1. The minister must accept that the project is now unaffordable over any reasonable timeframe.
  2. As a result of point (1) the minister must stop treating it as a single, monolithic scheme and break it into smaller projects.
  3. As a result of point (2) the minister must accept that some sections of the road will not be built as their BCR is too low. This includes, at the very least, the Ballygawley to Aughnacloy section and probably both phase 1a and phase 1b too.
  4. As a result of point (3) the minister should direct DFI to rapidly progress plans for high quality, dual-carriageway bypasses of Omagh and Strabane, largely based on the designs already in place for the A5 WTC and bring these to the point of being shovel ready at the earliest opportunity.
  5. Also as a result of point (3) the minister should direct DFI to suggest a suite of measures that could be implemented on the remainder of the A5, akin to the report that was carried out on the A32 Omagh to Enniskillen road in 2007. The purpose of this would be to identify smaller-scale schemes that could be implemented more rapidly and which would have positive benefit/cost ratios and which would be focused on reducing the number of serious crashes. These could include more overtaking opportunities (though the scope for these is admittedly quite limited), improvements to junctions that have high accident histories, localised bypasses of small settlements (eg Bready, Sion Mills), consolidation and closure of some side accesses and perhaps the installation of sections of central crash barriers such as exist on the Cherrymount Link in Enniskillen.
  6. As a result of points (4) and (5) the minister should direct DFI to focus investment on infrastructure schemes that would lead to greater benefits in the West. By way of examples, these could include further upgrades to the A4 west of Ballygawley, or further upgrades to the A6 Belfast to Derry road.

Appendix – Primer on the A5 WTC Scheme

The A5 WTC is the main road running south from Derry/Londonderry, via Strabane, Omagh and Ballygawley to the Monaghan border near Aughnacloy. It thereafter continues as the N2 to Dublin. It is effectively the main road from Dublin to the North-West, as well as being the main north-south connector for the western half of Northern Ireland. In 2007 the Irish government offered funding of £400m to the Northern Ireland Executive to upgrade this road to dual-carriageway standard, presumably because it would improve access to Donegal. Construction has yet to begin, though £80m has now been spent on planning. It has been repeatedly held up by (a) the Irish government postponing their funding offer in 2011 due to the Great Recession (b) three legal challenges – two of which were successful – in 2012, 2016 and 2017 and (c) the need for multiple public inquiries, the last of which took place in early 2020 (and is currently technically adjourned).

Because previous public inquiries were perceived by some to be insufficiently independent of the Dept for Infrastructure (DFI), the scheme’s sponsor, the 2020 public inquiry was instead carried out by the independent Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). Although the inquiry was to have looked purely at environmental considerations, the PAC itself decided it was appropriate to widen the inquiry to look at the overall rationale for the scheme and to consider alternatives. The PAC delivered an “interim” report on the public inquiry to DFI in September 2020 but, in keeping with normal practice, it was not published at that time as DFI took the next six months to decide their response.

The PAC’s interim report was published on 16 March 2021, along with DFI’s response. Given that previous public inquiries had largely endorsed the proposed scheme, the PAC’s interim report is remarkable for its ambivalent appraisal of the scheme, supportive in some areas but very negative in others. They did consider alternatives, but concluded that both dualling the existing A5 and building a new railway line were unlikely to make economic sense. In the end the PAC decided that they could not form a final view on the scheme with the information they had, and have asked for more work to be done, after which the Inquiry will be resumed and a final report prepared.

It is important to stress that the PAC can only issue recommendations to DFI. It does not have the power to cancel or alter the scheme. The DFI Minister is therefore free to choose to reject any of the recommendations that the PAC make.


Responses

  1. A very well balanced and informative blog – DFI would be advised to take note. It’s well past time when we simply build a road in the west for the sake of building a road in the west and give no consideration to the benefits (or lack of) which this might bring. By all means, build the section from Omagh to Strabane but abandon the rest and focus on infrastructure projects which will provide greater benefits – even if the money has to be spent exclusively in the west for political expediency, I’m sure NI Water (as an example) have many development projects which would provide much greater benefits for the west in supporting future development.

  2. while the Belfast Urban motorway is a reasonable example of project failure, urban and inter-urban routes are different. Increased use of public transport should be the way forward in the city, but with the railway sadly long closed then road improvement is the only way forward West of the Bann. Trying to reduce road travel is reducing people’s ability to travel and this is an agenda for lowering the standard of living and economic prospects of the North-West.

    When this saga began, it may have been true that there was not an immediate plan to dual the N2, but that is no longer true. The route for the N2 has been selected, bar the last couple of Km to the border which awaits resolution. This will likely start on site in 3 years or so and will now be built before the A5.
    https://n2monaghanlouth.ie/

  3. Hi Wesley,
    Thanks for writing this comprehensive and informative account of what is turning into quite a debacle.
    There is however one incorrect point made:
    “This stretch is also to be dualled despite having comparatively low traffic levels and there being no plan to dual the N2 on the Irish side of the border.”
    In fact in February of this year the preferred route for the N2 on the Republic side was chosen and this scheme will proceed. Here is the map:

    Click to access 7.%20C2b%20Preferred%20Route%20Corridor%20-%20Main%20Layout%20Plan.pdf


    Jonathan Dowling (Irishmotorwayinfo.com)

    • Thanks Don! Someone else said the same thing a short time ago. I’ll try to remember to amend that. Cheers. Wesley


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