COUNCILLORS have expressed fears the local authority will present them with broadly the same plan for the Limerick stage of the Northern Distributor Road – with one member comparing it to the twice-run Lisbon Treaty referendum.
After members decisively blocked plans to allow the €150m road pass through the Mountshannon Road, there is concern that council officials could put a very similar plan on display come the autumn.
Fine Gael council leader John Sheahan accused the consultants responsible for the project of “throwing down an ultimatum” following the heated, four hour meeting in County Hall.
“What annoyed some of the councillors is they were told if it did not go through, it would come back as the same thing: this is the preferred route, and there is no alternative to be chosen. A bit like the Lisbon Treaty – you either do it today or later,” he said.
At last week’s meeting, members were asked to approve a plan which would have seen the distributor road start at the Cappamore junction, cut through the Mountshannon Road with a bridge crossing the River Shannon.
It would then have proceeded at a gap between houses at the Plassey Park Road before heading to Parteen and Ardnacrusha.
The four-hour meeting in County Hall once again exposed a division which is felt to exist between senior council staff and the elected representatives.
Connecting Knockalisheen, Clare and the Dublin Road, the Northern Distributor Road – at a price tag of €150m – is intended to be a vital piece of infrastructure for the Mid-West region, and is key to expansion plans at the University of Limerick.
While officials and consultants were at pains to stress this, many councillors also had on their minds the concerns of residents, the devaluing of land, and a flood risk to land already once devastated when the Shannon burst its banks in 2009.
Councillors in City East led the argument, with newly elected Fine Gael councillor Marian Hurley saying: “It was quite a difficult day for us councillors. I applaud the executive and the consultants for the hours of work they have put into this study. But I am mindful of the people living in the Mountshannon Road who have grave reservations over flooding, and they are also aware there is an alluvial woodland which needs to be protected.”
The concern of her constituency colleague, Cllr Séighin O Ceallaigh of Sinn Fein, was the fact the road did not connect with the nearby M7 motorway.
“This would have made it a proper motorway which would have alleviated traffic in the city centre. What we are getting here is a 60km per hour dual carriageway with traffic calming measures. It was going to be like the Condell Road,” he explained.
There was also opposition from Mayor Jerry O’Dea, who said: “We have all travelled to cities around the world, and have seen the build up of roads and the problems they cause.”
In a back-and-forth with the council, the consultants from Roughan and O’Donovan played down the flood risk, with Michael Conroy claiming that it was minimal, and that it would lead to only a two-millimetre rise in the water level. The claim was greeted with scepticism by councillors.
Although the University of Limerick stands to be one of the chief beneficiaries of this new road, in whatever form it takes, the college has not – publicly at least – commented.
This, Cllr Hurley said, is something that needs to change.
“They have been the very silent partner on this, but really and truly they are one of the organisations trying to be facilitated. They really ought to look at what they can do to alleviate the traffic problems themselves,” she said.
The issue of the University – and the possible negative implications for growth – was to the forefront of the debate, with predictions the national population will swell to ten million by 2020.
Mr Conroy, who was educated at Ardscoil Ris in the city, claimed on Limerick’s Live 95FM last week that because of the vote “future generations will not have the opportunity [to attend the university] because capacity in the college is now limited, and its potential will be severely constrained”.
Many councillors were left upset by claims such as this, made by the consultant and council officials, with Cllr Michael Sheahan particularly critical, accusing them of “arrogance” and “intransigence”.
His party leader, Cllr John Sheahan, even said he might have been more minded to vote the route through had there been more of a consultation from the council.
Cllr Michael Sheahan said: “At no stage was there a compromise. I would not mind someone putting my back to the wall, before saying ‘Look, we can compromise now?’ But there was never any of that.”
Alternative routes on the table include building the road close to the National Technology Park or around the Killaloe by-pass.
But Cllr Michael Sheahan does not think the consultants would advocate a different route, as they have already come out so strongly in favour of the proposed route.
After the meeting had gone on for three hours, councillors took a 45-minute break to decide whether or not they would back the proposal.
During that time, a group of council officials requested entry to the private meeting rooms of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, who – due to their numbers – held the key to the outcome of the vote.
A source within Fianna Fail said: “They stepped outside the management dimension there. Councillors are well able to sit down and look at individual issues objectively and in isolation.”
The source also said he felt the consultants “went way beyond their remit” in painting doomsday scenarios over growth and jobs.
“They were there to provide a technical brief and a recommendation. They got involved in discussions way outside the remit of their job of work,” he added.
The proposed route did find favour with councillors Joe Leddin, Frankie Daly, and John Gilligan who said: “If ever there was a reason we should not have had a boundary extension this was it. I have seen councillors simply fold. People who know that by the decision they made, it is going to affect the development of the university and industry in the area.”
Councillors have long said their powers have become more limited in recent years. But their actions last week have created a major problem for the senior executive seeking to get the road built.