Serious questions about the need for the new €40 million Shannon Bridge Crossing were raised by objectors to the Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) and their representatives during the seventh day of an oral hearing on Tuesday.
Residents queried if the overall scheme is still needed amid claims that the delays and congestion experienced at the existing bridge linking Killaloe and Ballina no longer exists.
Ballina householder Roy Benson and his son, Keith, asked if 500 heavy commercial vehicles are still crossing Killaloe bridge, since they were recorded in a traffic survey on September 2011.
Speaking during the An Bord Pleanála oral hearing, they claimed the overall volume of heavy goods vehicles using the bridge has substantially reduced and argued if these vehicles are removed, it would result in a substantial improvement in traffic flow.
However, project manager Michael Conroy warned that motorists would face the prospect of two to three traffic light cycles before they could cross the existing bridge if the new crossing is not provided.
Mr Conroy pointed out it could take up to 13 minutes to get from the Birdhill/Ballina road to the Scariff road out of Killaloe during peak periods, in the event of an upturn in the economy.
If the scheme is not provided, he predicted Killaloe and Ballina would fail to prosper and asked is this what the local community wants for the next 20 or 30 years?
This was disputed by Keith Benson, who claimed the bridge wouldn’t experience previous volumes of heavy goods vehicles following the provision of the Shannon Tunnel.
He asked if the council is prepared to take into account the National Roads Authority (NRA) submission which, in his view, is opposed to the provision of the new bridge and bypass.
Barrister Dermot Flanagan, who represents the council, didn’t accept his characterisation of this submission and insisted the NRA had not opposed the scheme.
In a letter to Clare County Council, the NRA stated in the context of the Shannon Tunnel Public Private Partnership Programme, a material adverse impact could arise out of the provision of an alternative route to the PPP tolled road and the implementation of significant upgrade or improvement of the old existing route.
“It should be emphasised the contract provisions don’t prevent the development of new road schemes, but it is important that these provisions be considered carefully when preparing proposals for any road-related development matters, including any financial implications that may arise,” the NRA stated.
Roy Benson claimed traffic figures provided by the council and its agents “didn’t stack up” and said it is vital the board take into account the actual current situation, which undermines the cost benefit analysis for the scheme.
Barrister David Browne, who appeared on behalf of the objectors, estimated that one heavy goods vehicle would cross the bridge every minute based on the normal ten operational hours for the majority of commercial traffic during the day.
Keith Benson said he couldn’t understand where the figure of 500 heavy goods vehicles came from. and claimed it does not reflect the current situation.
Roy Benson asked Mr Conroy if he had noticed a decrease in the volume of traffic using the existing Killaloe bridge.
He asked where were heavy goods vehicles that crossed the bridge going to and argued most of the commercial traffic going to West and North Clare would use the new tunnel, with the number travelling to East Clare relatively small.
Mr Conroy acknowledged there had been a decrease from 2008 but wasn’t aware of a traffic decline since 2011.
Responding to questions from Roy and Keith Benson, Roughan and O’Donovan traffic engineer, John Bell, told the hearing he had experienced some traffic congestion driving from Ballina to Killaloe on Monday morning. He said he was in a queue of about ten cars and estimated the signal cycle took about 2.5 minutes to cross the bridge.
Mr Bell recalled a traffic survey in 2000 stated the Average Annual Daily Traffic (AADT) was 5,500 vehicles, of which 5% were heavy goods vehicles. In 2005 this had increased to 7,100 with 6.8% HGV, while it jumped again to 6,407 in September 2011 with about 8% HGV.
He stressed the council’s Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) is based over a 30-year period from 2017 to 2046. Acknowledging the level of traffic may decrease for a period, he noted NRA traffic projections indicated an increase of about 1.1% on average, compared to its previous prediction of about 4%.
Keith Benson asked Mr Bell to explain how it could take up to 14 minutes to cross over the bridge as cited in the September 2011 traffic survey.
Mr Bell explained this referred to travelling a distance of about five kilometres between the Birdhill to Ballina regional road just south of the Killaloe to Scariff road.
Keith Benson estimated this could take an extra minute and a half but Mr Bell stated a few minutes extra would be needed at least.
Roy Benson told the hearing it took him two and a half minutes to travel from his house on the Ballina side to his business on the Scariff road during peak times at 8am and 6pm.
Having taken a five minute sample video on Friday after coming home from the hearing, he found there was no traffic congestion coming from the Birdhill to Ballina regional road turning on to the bridge and claimed the delays as cited in the council’s traffic surveys and reports do not exist now.
Mr Bell insisted the council’s figures are based on observations and records and noted crossing the bridge from the Ballina side could take three and a half minutes waiting for the traffic lights sequence to change and the overall cycle time could vary up to 300 seconds.
He confirmed a set of junction turning counts was completed on September 7, 2011 while a 24-hour traffic count was done on September 13, 2011.