Under-ground and over-due

Dublin's new metro project - photo: © HKR Architects

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Dublin’s new metro project was shelved during the financial crisis - a reminder why public money is a precarious bet for long-term projects

Public transport projects, especially ones that involve building any kind of rail infrastructure, tend to be very expensive and very long-term. They are often planned and put into motion by enthusiastic politicians, but whose removal from office at election time can mean putting the brakes on - even when projects are well underway.

But it’s not just the political climate that is subject to change; so is the economy. In 2011, at the height of Ireland’s financial turmoil, a newly-elected coalition government cut spending in order to satisfy the terms of a EUR100 billion bailout from the IMF. The result was that a number of infrastructure projects got shelved – including plans to build a metro tunnel under Dublin called DART Underground - and a rail link called Metro North, an extension of the light rail LUAS, linking the city with the northern suburbs and the airport.

In 2021, the cement will flow again, thanks to new injection of cash made available by Ireland’s new EUR27 billion Capital Plan, that will include the revived Metro North project, albeit in a watered down, cheaper version that features much less tunneling. DART Underground appears to have been put permanently on hold.

The decision to go ahead with the ‘metro-lite’ option came after a public consultation, as well as the fact that 170 million had already been spent on the project and the government didn’t want to be seen to be ‘wasting’ the money.

Minister for Transport Pascal Donohoe was advised in April 2014 to look into private funding to pay for any revised scheme, the Irish Times reports. In ministerial briefing papers he was advised that “no new large project, however strong the business case, could proceed unless a funding package outside the normal departmental allocations, and including private sector involvement, was available”. Mr. Donohoe’s predecessor Leo Varadkar had asked the National Transport Authority (NTA) to reexamine the business case for the Metro project before going any further.

The new rail link is the centerpiece of the government’s EUR10 billion transport-related plans that will be completed over the next 12 years

The new rail link will cost EUR 2.4 billion and is the centerpiece of the government’s EUR10 billion transport-related plans that will be completed over the next 12 years (barring of course, any new changes to the political landscape.)

How exactly the private sector will be involved in funding it has not quite been established, with a representative of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport saying the details have yet to be worked out: “The Government will take advice from the relevant State agencies and will also take into account the prevailing market conditions before deciding on the most appropriate funding mechanism. The estimated cost of the project has been arrived at on the basis of the project being a conventionally funded Exchequer project. The optimum funding arrangements will be considered in the detailed business case.”

Reactions to the watered-down metro plan have been mixed: The Irish Times has lambasted the government’s short-termism, issuing a scathing critique of the renewed project by drawing comparisons with Ireland’s continental cousins:  “The big difference between France and Ireland is that French governments of all political hues took a long-term view of public transport projects, while our politicians are driven by short-term considerations. The next general election is their only horizon. And they’re playing this dismal game yet again over transport plans for Dublin that have been kicking around for years.”

The Green Party is not happy with the lower capacity of the revised scheme, and judging by message boards up and down the country, nor are the general public: metro projects are popular and bring perceived prestige. A lot of the grumbling is coming from those who think the light rail extension is not a ‘proper’ metro like other major international cities.

But metro is not always the right solution. Apart from finding the funding and the commitment to go through with large scale projects, choosing the right mode for a particular urban area is crucial. BRT and other combined mobility options are cheaper and take much less time, and are often better suited to medium sized cities.

Public transport companies need to figure out what kind of investment best suits their circumstances, and look into different ways to diversify their funding mechanisms, including looking into partnerships with the private sector that can ensure long-term viability. They also need to identify other ways to diversify revenue streams. More information can be found on UITP’s financing toolbox.

A day is a long time in politics, as they say. A decade – which is about the time it takes to plan and execute a heavy-rail project – is practically an aeon. The saga of Dublin’s Metro serves as a reminder that public money can’t be depended upon, whether it’s because of ‘dithering’ politicians, or an unstable economy that tends to go through cycles of boom and bust.

Ireland’s dark economic days seem to be behind it, but what will happen to the much anticipated metro if the world economy tanks again? The Irish Prime Minister and his cabinet are facing accusations from the opposition and Twittersphere that it’s all a cynical election ploy. For Dublin’s sake, we hope they’re wrong.

Contact: editor(at)uitp.org



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