Thursday, 7 October 2010
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy James Bannon: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me time to debate this important issue, namely, the need for the Minister for Transport to ensure that County Longford is included in, not excluded from, plans for a 2,000 kilometre national network of cycle paths, which will connect cities and towns across the State. Can the Minister tell me the reason this county, which is the heart of Ireland and could be regarded as the central focal point where all routes cross, should have been the only county to be precluded in the first place from the Minister’s vision of world class cycle routes, considering all Longford has to offer in terms of amenities, sporting facilities, natural resources and scenic landscapes? The Minister should be aware that visions tend to be suspect at the best of times. That one in particular seems to be flawed, and the grounds for accepting its validity seem shaky.
This exclusion makes no sense. To most people an all-Ireland nationwide network of 25 rather than 26 counties is a joke. I would like to know the reason anyone could possibly plan or, in the case of the National Roads Authority, carry out a scoping study into the delivery of a national cycle network and, on foot of its findings, omit one county — my own county of Longford.
I remind the Minister that County Longford is very much part of this nation. There is outrage across the county as people cannot understand the reason a county with so much to offer could be left out of this exciting plan. This is by no means the first initiative that Longford has been excluded from to the detriment of its economic well-being and development. This omission is very worrying at a time of economic fallout from the loss of tourism revenue and record unemployment levels.
I would like the Minister to outline the criteria that was used to select the route of the network and also the criteria for exclusion. It makes no sense to me because this is a county which has the national primary route, the N4 from Dublin to Sligo, running through it and a national primary and secondary roads network — Rooskey to Rathowen and on to the Westmeath border, which is 35 kilometres. That route could be extended to Mullingar and beyond. The secondary route from the Granard-Cavan border to Tang, County Westmeath is 50 kilometres long and could be extended into the city of Athlone. The Longford to Lanesboro road is 15 kilometres long with the potential of extension to Roscommon town. These roads and others are more than wide enough to support a cycle lane.
The cycle route would complement the recent reopening of the Royal Canal from Spencer Dock in Dublin to Richmond Harbour in Clondra, County Longford. As has been seen across Europe, a canal network is a vibrant cross-country link between towns and rural areas, generating a view of the hidden interior rarely seen from motorways or trains. A road network for cyclists would tie in with this amenity. However, the canal is not a direct route and for those interested in road cycle routes which are not separated from the road by a grass verge or other barrier or heading away from the main areas, the roads network provides the quickest links. The idea of a cycle network has been incredibly successful in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. Apart from the transport and leisure advantages, cycling is an extremely healthy activity and as such should be encouraged in all counties of Ireland, without exception.
Longford, both north and south, has some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Its lakes, rivers and canal network provide a haven for tourists and locals alike for fishing, boating and other leisure pursuits. It is my understanding that the nodes of the proposed network are settlements around Ireland, with populations of 10,000 or more and the proposed route corridors are linked to tourist attractions and amenities. There are no grounds for excluding Longford. The corridors will provide an outline around which routes will develop nationwide, with potential for linkage between corridors, particularly where existing infrastructure will allow for cost-effective delivery. Again, there are no grounds for excluding Longford in that regard.
County Longford is essentially on the offshoot of the Dublin to Galway route, which I understand will be the main artery of the network. Common sense would lead one to see it as an integral part of any cycle network, as a final destination for those not wishing to undertake the longer route and as a stop-off point for those who do. Tourists planning to cycle along parts of the network could not find a more attractive county to aim for or a destination more likely to provide for a sporting holiday than Longford. The tie-in with the canal route allows for the possibility of cycling for part of the journey and travelling back by canal. This strikes me as a good link-up of resources.
On many occasions in this House and in the Seanad previously, I have highlighted the lack of funding for Longford-Westmeath and the removal of vital services. However, I did not think that at any time I would have to defend the geographical and logistical right of the county to be included in the definition of the nation. Longford was given neither hub nor gateway status and the pattern of exclusion seems set. Why this should be so I cannot imagine, but I am not prepared to stand by while my county is again treated with contempt.
Deputy John Moloney: I find it hard to believe that Deputy Bannon considers his county is being treated with contempt. I suppose the excuse is that the county did so well when Albert Reynolds was Taoiseach, ably followed by his protegé.
Deputy John Moloney: I remember passing through Longford one day and seeing a massive sewerage investment programme being developed. That went on for years. I am not trying to say that Longford lost a cycle route because so much went into Longford, far from it. I just recognise that significant infrastructure went into Longford in its time.
I am replying to this debate because, unfortunately, the Minister for Transport cannot be here this evening. Reflecting the need to commence early progress towards a sustainable transport future as outlined in the Government’s smarter travel plan 2009-2020, Ireland’s first national cycle policy framework was published in April 2009. The stated policy of this framework is to create a strong cycling culture in Ireland. The overall target is that 10% of all trips will be by bicycle by 2020. This is an ambitious target which means that cycling must be promoted and supported in all of our cities, towns and rural areas.
The development of a national network of both rural and urban cycling routes is a specific objective of the cycling policy framework. It identifies the need to deliver high quality cycle routes on a nationwide basis so as to encourage cycling for transport, leisure and tourism. The policy framework also identifies that the delivery of interurban routes, in the form of a national cycle network, would be in addition to the recognised need for the provision of safe cycling routes within urban areas. In response to that objective and at the Minister for Transport’s request, the National Roads Authority undertook to carry out a scoping study on the extent of such a network. The NRA engaged with a range of stakeholders during the preparation of this scoping study, including the National Trails Office, Fáilte Ireland, Waterways Ireland and the CIE group. The range of stakeholders involved ensured that the study built on previous work and also engaged those who will be integral to the delivery of a national cycle network. The scoping study has been completed by the NRA and is available on the smarter travel website.
While the operational detail of the study and the assessments made are a matter for the NRA, the study outlines a number of key points. A number of criteria were chosen for testing the various route corridor options, including connecting major cities and settlements of greater than 10,000 population; facilitating commuter, leisure and tourism usage; connecting to the proposed Fáilte Ireland network; utilising existing infrastructure; achieving good coverage nationwide; and promoting social and economic development. The results are reflected in the strategic inter-urban corridors proposed in the study, which have a network length of some 2,000 km.
When considering the study, it is important to note that it explicitly states that the network it outlines represents corridors and not routes. The study does not indicate the specific routes that could be delivered along these broad corridors. The study also specifically notes that the identified corridors are seen as providing a skeleton around which development of the national cycle network should occur.
Deputy John Moloney: The only alternative I can offer is, in future, to ask Deputy Bannon to provide me with the response he wants me to deliver. Otherwise, I can only deliver the facts. That is what I am doing.
Deputy John Moloney: It gets better. The study goes on to state that links and loops between and into these major corridors should also be considered in the context of developing an integrated network of national extent. The study highlights the particular benefits if such links make use of existing infrastructure. It also provides a focus for the development of a national cycle network.
Deputy Bannon has described what Longford has to offer in terms of amenities, sporting facilities, natural resources and scenic landscapes. Smarter travel and sustainable transport are important. Cycling routes have great potential for increasing mobility and accessibility and providing a real alternative to car journeys. The most important aspect of the plan is that by 2020, in ten years time, the Minister for Transport — whom I quietly expect to be still in office then — will be able to say the 10% has been achieved.
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