Higher emissions? Or empty roads and emigration?

Monday 26 April is the last day to make a submission on the public consultation process for the largest section of motorway yet to be proposed in Ireland – some 80 km between Cork and Limerick. Submissions must be with An Bord Pleanála before 5.30pm. Unless you are a statutory consultee, or are set to lose land to the proposed motorway, an “observer fee” of €50 is payable (for more details see http://www.corkrdo.ie/files/M20 CPO data/Newspaper Ad/Cork County Council 36882 CPO Examiner Advert R2.pdf)

Over the past few weeks I’ve been fielding queries on the proposed route – everything from how much agricultural land will be lost (more than 2,400 acres) to when An Bord Pleanala is likely to issue a decision (end of August 2010).

One gentlemen sent me a list of 6 questions. They focus more on the financial side than the environmental one. Below I reproduce his questions, together with my answers.

Q 1. Ireland is building the proposed M20 (Limerick/Cork Motorway) through a Public Private Partnership (PPP) and can you confirm to me that the Irish Government will guarantee the project and so the Irish taxpayer. Where will the initial €800 million come from, which is the estimated cost of the M20 project?

A) The proposed M20 project is to be considered for PPP, according to the public consultation documents. The PPP company takes out a loan – basically on behalf of government, and the government signs a contract to give that company the necessary interest and capital payments each year. In this way PPP is a means of borrowing off the Government’s balance sheet. However, the government actual pays more over the life of the project because the borrowing, technically speaking, is not sovereign (Government) debt, and borrowing by private companies is always dearer than by governments.

Q 2. Is the European Investment Bank (EIB) or the European Development Bank expected to financially support the M20 motorway project?

A) On 29 March 2010 the Vice-president of the European Investment Bank, Plutarchos Sakellaris, in a visit to Dublin said that his institution “was examining the possibility of part-funding the proposed N17- N18 Gort to Tuam Public Private Partnership motorway project”, noting that “if completed this would form part of a second western transport corridor between Cork, Limerick and Galway”. Click here for source
The proposed Gort to Tuam motorway is more developed in planning terms than Limerick to Cork (proposed M20). Going on Mr Sakellaris comments above it seems likely that EIB finance will also be sought for the proposed Cork to Limerick motorway.

Q 3. Do you know how much the Irish Government is raising per month to run the country? My understanding is €2 billion!

A) The Department of Finance is likely to borrow €19bn in 2010, which amounts to 1.6bn a month, or about 400m a week.

Q 3. You mentioned the National Development Plan (NDP) for roads yet I understand the Irish authorities are saying that they have no Plan or Programme for roads so how are they able to avoid acknowledging it as a Plan?

A) There was a requirement under the 1993 Roads Act to produce a roads plan for the whole country, mapping out a strategic vision of how Ireland would be interconnected by road, something that would show how duplication and waste in motorway construction would be avoided. However, the requirement to produce this plan was abolished in 2007.

Plans or programmes must be subject to Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) under European Law. However, the NRA claim to have no plan as such: projects are simply progressed on the basis of Transport 21. The NRA and the Government further claim that the Transport 21 plan isn’t a plan, but is more of a list of schemes. The government’s case is that because there was no legal obligation on it to compile Transport 21, it is not a plan it had to make, and is therefore not a plan under the SEA Directive.

Q 4. Has the Irish Government ever received any money from Europe for road projects?

A) Yes, since joining in 1973 “Ireland has received €58 billion in funding from Europe, including some €17.5 billion since 1989 from the Structural and Cohesion Funds. In addition, the European Investment Bank (EIB) has lent almost €10 billion to the Irish economy since
1973 ( click here for source)

It is also possible to see which projects were funded or part-funded by the EU, click here.

Q 5. Do you know what Ireland’s total debt and the size of its budget is? How much of the spending side of its budget is made up by taxation and how much is the shortfall that has to be borrowed?

A) In 2010 Ireland will take in around 50bn but has a current annual spending requirement of around 70bn; hence the need to borrow close to €20 bn in 2010.

Ireland’s national debt has increased from €45 bn in 2008 and now stands at in excess of €75bn: see http://www.ntma.ie/NationalDebt/levelOfDebt.php

Our national debt is expected to double within 4 years, jumping to €150bn by 2014.

In 2008 some €2.6bn was spent servicing the national debt. By 2015 that figure will reach almost €8bn.

This is considered the optimistic scenario. See http://www.ronanlyons.com/2009/12/22/what-will-irelands-government-finances-be-like-in-2015-a-five-year-view-on-the-budget/

Q 6. Any other information that you think might be helpful.

A) Motorway has already been constructed between Cork city and Cahir, part-funded by the EU. This route is known as the M8. At Cahir the M8 intersects with the N24 running between Limerick and Waterford. The NRA has already indicated its intention to enhance the N24, with dual carriageway proposed for at least some of the route:

Less than 3,500 vehicles a day make long distance journeys between Limerick and Cork, including going the whole way between both cities. Traffic count data shows that there are only an average of 11,000 vehicles on half the route, the 40km section between Croom and New Twopothouse. The only sections of the route that see robust traffic levels are the 20km north of Cork, and the 20km south of Limerick used be commuters.

Of the 11,000 vehicles on the low-flow 40km section (between Croom to New Twopothouse) at least 70 cent constitutes local traffic making reasonably short journeys. So 7,700 vehicles are making local trips while 3,300 are longer distance. Only the longer distance traffic will migrate to motorway. This is especially true in the case of Croom to New Twopothouse because the proposed motorway departs quite radically from the existing road alignment, avoiding the very towns from which the demand to make local journeys derives.

Motorway has capacity for 50,000 – 80,000 vehicles. Hence if motorway was built between Croom and New Twopothouse it would be a chronically low-flow section, operating at c. 5 per cent capacity.

The alternative approach is to stream the approx 3,300 longer distance vehicles on to the M8 and improved N24. (Hence, travelling from Cork, long distance traffic wishing to avail of high quality road could be accommodated on the M8 motorway as far as Cahir, and from there, take the enhanced N24 route to Limerick.)

With these 3,300 vehicles attracted to the eastern route described above, volumes on the section between New Twopothouse and Croom would fall to 7,700 vehicles. Upgrading the existing road – rather than a whole new motorway – is then what’s required.

Not having to construct 40km of new motorway alignment in open countryside – particularly given the heavy engineering proposed for this section – would save somewhere in the region of €400m.

The above approach would also match the Government’s most recent policy document, Smarter Travel (2009), under which car commuting to work “will fall from 65 per cent to 45 per cent” and “the overall number of kilometres travelled by road will not increase significantly”.

Although working almost a year later, those compiling the consultation documents for the proposed M20 appear to have no awareness of Smarter Travel.

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14 Responses to Higher emissions? Or empty roads and emigration?

  1. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    @ James,

    I seem to be the only one posting comments here these days, but here goes…

    Found your item of interest as it reveals yet again the extraordinarily high financial cost of motorway building. You would have to wonder whether this one between Cork and Limerick should be built at all, given that the road there is already good and traffic volumes are low. Reminds me of the Naas-Carlow-Kilkenny motorway, a fantastic piece of engineering but with hardly ever any traffic on it. It’s the one that puts the Pollardstown Fen at risk if the road’s water-saving system ever malfunctions. Probably the biggest white elephant in the country.

    On a different matter, but one that you are also familiar with: Frank MacDonald in last Thursday’s Irish Times quoted you as saying that lithium was in short supply for lithium-ion car batteries and that the planet’s resources of lithium ore would be exhausted within 10 or 15 years if car manufacturers went the electric car route.

    It seems that MacDonald is suggesting that perhaps the electric car has no future and that we should perhaps be waiting for hydrogen fuel technology to be developed instead and not rolling out electric car infrastructure. But I thought other minerals could be used when the lithium ran out, especially magnesium; there are endless supplies of magnesium in the world’s oceans. I know lithium works best, but if magnesium, or nickel or iron based batteries can be developed, then surely the electric car is ready for take-off and that Minister Eamon Ryan’s scheme will be successful? What do you think?

  2. John Gibbons says:

    This weekend I drove for the first time the brand new M9 motorway from just outside Kilkenny that sweeps down to Waterford, over the dramatic new bridge and on over to link with the Cork road. The only thing missing on the journeys in both directions (apart from any traffic) was the tumbleweed.

    I’ll defer to James’s expertise in the proposed carrying capacities of these mega-routes, but it’s pretty clear that this M9 is a grand Soviet-style engineering solution to which there is no known problem. The previous Kilkenny-Waterford road was one of the worst in the country; we’ve now lurched in one grotesque step from the sublimely bad to the ridiculously grand, grandiose. In fact. It’s hard to escape the feeling that if Martin Cullen had hailed from halfway up the Comeragh mountains, there’d now be a six-lane motorway climbing vertically into the mists to honour the great man.

    Quite apart from the enormous cost of building these roads and acquiring the land for a king’s ransom, the ongoing maintenance is clearly going to be a massive revenue drain in the years ahead.

    Was it Mary Hanafin or Mary Coughlan who was quoted this weekend saying that ‘only FF could lead us out of the recession…’. I think they may well be right, especially if the sentence is competed with the rider: ‘…and into the Depression’!

  3. james nix says:

    Thanks Coilin. As i understand the scheme announced by Minister Ryan a subsidy of €4,000 per vehicle will be made available to the purchaser of an electric car.

    On average commuter cars spend more than 90 per cent of their time parked. With taxis it’s different but there does not appear to be any plan to comparatively incentivise the migration of taxis to electric vehicles.

    Similarly, when it comes to buses, there appears to be no intention to prioritise lithium for public transport. Dublin Bus have 1 electric hybrid vehicle out of a fleet of 1,000 – even though we have the lead builder of hybrid buses on the island, Wright Bus in Ballymena.

    In short we know that public transport entails a more efficient use of energy and resources than private car commuting. And we know lithium is scarce. But sadly we don’t seem to have a plan to use lithium sparingly with the aim just to aid private car commuting apparently.

    As for the insularity, obesity and resource profligacy engendered by over-using the private car… all matters for another day!

  4. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Yes, I thought when the motorway network programme began years ago that all the money should instead be used to build a railway infrastructure. I thought that eventually most transport around the country could be by electric rail, with a network of robotic trams moving constantly, no traffic jams. To preserve the ‘insularity’ that people like, I thought each train could be comprised of a string of pods of varying size: small four-seater pods for privacy, large 40-seat pods for ‘steerage’, maybe 12-seaters for small groups. Fifty pods per tram. You could book your pod journey online, go down to your local station and travel wherever you wanted around the country. The railways in the countryside would be carried on four-foot stilts in order to allow all wildlife to move freely under them: tens of thousands of badgers and foxes would be saved annually. The entire system would be powered by wind-generated electricity. I think it’s time we stopped building motorways, but it’s a bit late now, billions have been spent and will never be recovered, and then there’s the ongoing maintenance costs, as John pointed out, that will be another big problem. This programme was pushed through aggressively by the FF/PDs with all environmental objections described as ‘snails and swans holding up progress’.

  5. John: I travel the new Waterford bypass motorway to Dublin several times a week. While it does save time, it is completely underutilised – I rarely see other cars travelling on it in either direction

  6. John Gibbons says:


    Yea, I was only down said road over a weekend, so am glad you’ve confirmed my suspicion that this thing is overkill on an epic scale. Depressing to see the landscape literally sliced up, communities and farms split, when all has been needed for the last 30 years is a good quality national road, either a dual carriageway or a good quality single lane with plenty of overtaking points.

  7. And they still march on as we found out yesterday planning to roll out more unnecessary roads as soon as the tiger returns in 10 years time tieing up more land until then. James in a PPP is there any risk to the private investor or is his money guaranteed by us poor old taxpayers.

  8. Paddy Morris says:

    Well I know that in the case of the M3, our latest and greatest PPP (a motorway to Waterford is one thing, but to Cavan?) the operator is guaranteed a certain level of return so if not enough cars choose to use it and pay tolls, the state will pay to make up the shortfall. Terms vary from road to road, but yes partners are generally guaranteed a return.


    And it’s not just here the taxpayer and commuter is getting shafted by these, Monbiot has been on about these PPPs for years:-

  9. james nix says:

    Yes the NRA have put ‘traffic guarantee schemes’ on toll road projects such as the M3 and the Shannon Tunnel.

    The Shannon tunnel opens later this later and the daily traffic volume must reach 17,200 vehicles or the taxpayer makes payments to the toll operator. In 2011 traffic volumes must reach 19,400 vehicles a day, and in 2012 there must be 20,600 vehicles passing through the tunnel or, again, taxpayers pay.

    Traffic volumes have to keep on increasing; the daily average must be 1,200 vehicles higher in each subsequent year. Volumes must reach 30,000 vehicles a day by 2020; by 2025 volumes must stand at double their 2010 level (34,600, up from 17,200), and by 2035 there must be close to 40,000 vehicles passing through the tunnel. The taxpayer will pay the PPP operator for any shortfall.

    It’s a similar story on the M3. If traffic volumes don’t reach 27,250 vehicles a day in 2011, taxpayers are on the hook for payments to the PPP operator. Again, growth in future years is assumed.

    Minister Dempsey’s policy, as outlined in Smarter Travel (Feb 2009) isn’t simply that car traffic won’t grow but that 500,000 people who now take the car to work will commute by other means by 2020. That’s an additional 50,000 people a year switching away from cars for ten years.

    The NRA say that they signed the M3 and Shannon Tunnel contracts before the Smarter Travel policy document was published. Yet the EPA has been warning for years that traffic volumes could not grow if Ireland was to meet its climate change targets.

    And the reality of high energy prices over the longer term was also pretty clear when the NRA signed these contracts in 2008.

    As far as I can gather Ireland consumes 188,000 barrels of oil a day: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ei.html

    That’s 69m barrels a year, or 5bn dollars a year if oil holds at $73 dollars a barrel. Converting to euro gives an annual outflow from Ireland of €4 billion a year at today’s exchange rate.

    And the NRA still hasn’t changed its ways, more than one year on from the publication of Smarter Travel. All of which makes its excuse for signing contracts based on high levels of traffic growth ring hollow.

    The NRA is still assuming high traffic growth. Proposals for motorways – the M20, M21, Adare and Macroom – are all cases in point.

    So if traffic doesn’t grow the taxpayer gets hit having to pay the PPP operator. And if traffic does grow there are greater carbon-related payments, or taxpayers need to spend more to undo that trend.

    All the while at NRA HQ the assumption of endless growth, paid for the ever-willing taxpayer, knows no end, it seems.

  10. Brian Hyde says:

    Hi James,
    Can you confirm wheither the m20 proposed motorway is going to be shadow tolled.Serious questions need to be asked of the NRA why they have not done a proper cost benifit analysis on linking the m8 at cahir to the n74 to Limerick a saving of 250 million against the current proposal fom Cork To Croom costing 800 million euro for the 80 km proposed motorway where the current flow of traffic is so low,

  11. judy osborne says:

    An interesting phenomena has occurred in wicklow where a new, over engineered road has just opened. The Port Access Road was supposedly constructed to take large trucks from the small local port to the N11, some miles away. But of course the Port’s main traffic was wood etc for the construction industry and the road and its 4 lane cycle track is practically empty now. Well pretty empty of trucks anyway.

    In fact the road has very quickly become a favourite spot for young fathers to take their children for an jaunt on their bikes. Bitumen with no potholes – spacious and safe unlike most of the roads they live on. And in the evening there is also a constant stream of walkers and joggers. The views are phenomenal. Still at something like 70 million that’s a pricey athletics pitch and I’m wondering how the local works department will be able to keep up with mowing the extensive grass verges and sweeping up the leaves from all the trees that have been planted. (Not to mention picking up the litter that is already accumulating!) All the new lighting must be expensive to run too.

    Judy Osborne

  12. Marty says:

    As a landowner who will be affected if the M20 proceeds as currently planned. Living in the area you referred to earlier between New Twopothouse and Croom, you mention a traffic count of approx 11,000 vehicles on the N20, with 70 % doing local journeys. Is there a way of verifying these figures? Also, I note a few miles away from me a little village called Ballyhea will be backed by a 530 metre viaduct, God knows what the cost of this will be to the Taxpayer!

  13. james nix says:

    the figure of c. 11,000 is taken from chapter 5 of the Environmental Impact Statement

    Table 5.6 uses 2008 data; traffic has fallen since: hence the estimate of 11,000 vehicles per day

    See page 5.13 on http://www.corkrdo.ie/m20_cork_limerick_motorway_scheme_publications.php

    70 per cent of traffic is doing local journeys: the NRA & Cork Co Co had two pre-feasibility reports done which found only about 30 per cent of traffic on this route is long-distance (as opposed to short, local hops). This is consistent across the national trunk network as a whole; see the last 2 reports on this link:


    The funding mechanism would almost certainly be some type of PPP with fixed payments going each year to the consortium (which has done the borrowing to build the road on ‘behalf’ of the taxpayer). Unlikely that Limerick Tunnel / M3 penalty clauses will be put in place due to falling traffic.

    For a trend analysis of future traffic declines in the US see: http://www.postcarbon.org/blog-post/104360-from-growth-to-decline-vehicle-miles

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