The N6 ring road: Solution or dead end for Galway congestion crisis?
Noteworthy and The Journal take a deep dive into the controversial infrastructure plan which awaits green light from planners.
“WE’RE NOT ABLE to plan, we don’t know what’s going to happen to our homes. We’re stuck.”
Deirdre Goggin lives in a pristinely kept cottage near the Headford Road in Galway but faces an uncertain future. Her home is one of 54 residences subject to a compulsory purchase order (CPO) and demolition if a proposed ring road around the north of Galway city is approved.
The chronic congestion in the city has been a topic of contention in the west for years, with a bypass a large part of the conversation for over two decades.
Derrick Hambleton is a former head of the Galway branch of sustainable development NGO An Taisce. “People are just anxious to be able to get to work, to get into the shops, to do all of their regular daily things without being caught up in traffic,” he told Noteworthy.
“But a lot of people are beginning to realise that this road is not going to solve [everything].”
Hambleton was also a taxi driver in Galway for 30 years. “So I know very well about traffic and all of the problems.”
The fate of what has been presented as a key solution to those problems – the 18km N6 Ring Road around the north of Galway city – is earmarked for a decision by An Bord Pleanála (ABP) by the end of April.
Noteworthy and The Journal have been looking into the controversy around the road and its place within the wider infrastructural future envisaged for Galway city and its surrounds.
Proposals for a road to relieve the city centre of some traffic have come and gone, dating back to the late ‘90s when studies were carried out in preparation for a bypass.
A proposal for an outer bypass was approved by An Bord Pleanála in 2008, but the plan was effectively back to square one in 2013 following a trip to the European Court of Justice.
So it was back to the drawing board for Galway City and County councils, from which emerged the current plan – the N6 Galway City Ring Road.
The 18km road would loop around the north of the city, giving drivers a way to access outer parts of the city and pass from east to west without entering the centre. It is also intended to free up road space for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport in the city centre.
However, its critics have said the proposal will do none of these things, and will simply be a costly, “overkill” solution to the congestion problem. Its developers, conversely, argue that the route would connect “to the city road network” and be effective in diverting traffic away from the city centre, creating more room for alternative travel methods.
This proposal is currently under consideration by An Bórd Pleanála with a decision expected by 30 April.
Last year, an oral hearing was held on the project in which the developers Arup – commissioned by Galway County Council and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) – outlined their plans and assessment of the impact of the road.
Submissions were also received from people who would be affected by the project. These included some of the 54 households whose homes would be acquired if the project goes ahead as planned; people who believe the road will have a detrimental impact on the environment; and people calling for the funding and planning to instead be put on cycling, walking and other more active forms of transport.
Two decades in the deciding
The prospect of building a bypass for Galway city and its environs has been discussed, supported and opposed for more than two decades at this point.
A report from the Irish Times in 2000 said the outer bypass, which was estimated to cost £113 million, was being opposed by residents’ groups on the outskirts of Galway city.
Consultants were first appointed in 1999 to undertake feasibility studies, route selections, design and planning for a bypass. This resulted in the N6 Galway City Outer Bypass (GCOB) proposal which was submitted to An Bord Pleanála for consideration in December 2006.
This was located further north than the current ring road proposal. It was intended to be just over 21km in length, with 9km of link roads and another bridge crossing on the River Corrib.
In 2008, ABP granted approval for the eastern section of the proposal, but denied the western section due to its impacts on the Tonabrocky Bog which is located in a natural heritage area.
The approval of the Environmental Impact Statement for the scheme was appealed to the High Court by environmental activist Peter Sweetman in 2009 over impacts on the Lough Corrib – Special Area of Conservation (cSAC).
He claimed that ABP had erred in its interpretation of Article 6 of the Habitats Directive in concluding that the effect of the road scheme on the Lough Corrib protected site would not constitute an “adverse effect on the integrity of the site”.
The High Court reviewed and upheld the ABP decision, but allowed Sweetman to appeal to the Supreme Court, which he did.
The Supreme Court sought the opinion of the European Court of Justice on the interpretation of the European Habitats Directive.
The ECJ gave its judgement on 11 April 2013. It ruled that the directive must be interpreted as meaning that a plan not directly connected with the management of a site will adversely affect the integrity of that site if it’s liable to prevent the lasting preservation of a priority natural habitat.
After this ruling from the ECJ, the Supreme Court quashed the earlier ABP approval of the eastern part of the bypass. This left the council and its teams effectively back to square one in the process.
After this, a document examining the constraints of the scheme in 2014 said that alternatives to the road could be considered, “including non-road alternatives or simply upgrades of the existing network”.
The Galway Transport Strategy (GTS) was published in August 2016 which focused on the development over a 20-year period of all aspects of transport within the city centre, including public transport, cycling, walking and vehicular travel.
However it also brought the ring road back into play, stating that it is an “important element of providing” a cross-city route for road travel.
The current ring road plan was put forward to An Bord Pleanála in 2018. The then-Minister for Transport Shane Ross, Galway County Council and TII welcomed this in a statement. Ross described it as a “vitally important ring road” and said the people of Galway “will benefit hugely” from the “long awaited” decision.
The government’s 2018-2027 National Development Plan says the Galway Ring Road is estimated to cost between €550 and €600 million with an estimated completion date of 2025.
Where is the congestion coming from?
As mentioned already, the issue of traffic congestion is not disputable. All parties arguing for or against the ring road are in favour of finding a solution to the traffic problems afflicting Galway city residents.
The issue lies in concluding whether a ring road that goes outside the city centre is the solution to this problem.
According to critics of the plan, it won’t, but the developers and the council say it will ease congestion and free up road space in the city centre.
An Environmental Impact Assessment report outlined that 35% of total car trips into and around Galway City cross the River Corrib.
Of these trips, around 3% are bypass traffic. Around 40% of total trips remain on the same side of the city as they started, so they’re not trying to get from one side of the city to the other.
One-fifth – 20% – of journeys stay within the city zone, but cross the River Corrib from one side of the city to the other.
The figures are based on analysis of private car trips from or through Galway City in 2012. Based on this, the GTS assessed that a transport solution must be multi-modal and cater for a high proportion of short journeys that remain on the same side of the city, and the journeys that go from one side of the city to the other.
The report said there will be a 16% increase in public transport trips in 2039 with the road developments under the GTS compared to a scenario of not building the ring road.
Arup’s introduction at the oral hearing outlined that there are critical transport issues that “require urgent resolution”.
It said there is a “significant” lack of capacity with pedestrians, cyclists, vulnerable road users, public transport, freight and private cars “competing for space on a congested road network”.
It summarised the issues facing the city and surrounding areas:
- Congestion on roads.
- Over-capacity of junctions.
- Unreliable journey times and unpredictable delays.
- Peak-hours traffic delays.
- Traffic that could be by-passed is in conflict with internal traffic.
- Inadequate transport links to access markets in the city.
- Inadequate transport connections from Galway towards Connemara.
- Lack of accessibility to the western region as a whole.
- Lack of available space to facilitate the improvement of non-motorised modes of transport.
It outlined: “The total breakdown of the transport network in Galway occurs on a frequent basis as there is no resilience in the network for example on a wet afternoon, during road maintenance, in the event of a vehicle collision and during signal outage. This random unpredictable shutdown of Galway’s transport network costs millions and has the real potential to prohibit Galway functioning as a city or economic engine for the Western region.”
Reliance on car travel
Arup said there are a number of issues constraining development in the city – these include the limited space available, residential areas verging on both sides of the River Corrib and the presence of designated sites of international significance.
It also said the Galway suburbs are low density, which has led to a reliance on car travel, making it difficult to develop an economically efficient public transport solution.
This is explored in further detail in the GTS. This strategy report said that options such as light rail would provide too much capacity for the demand.
It said “future conditions” indicated that with high-frequency services in place, the maximum demand is around 1,100 people over a one-hour period in the morning peak.
This amounts to 80-90% capacity of a frequent bus service and less than 25% of the capacity of a frequent light rail service.
A light rail service would therefore “provide capacity far in excess of what is practically required”, the GTS said.
It said that considering the cost of building and operating a light rail on top of bus services, that a bus-based public transport system “remains the most appropriate” for the city.
How did a ring road become mooted as the key solution?
Arup said an assessment of the overall transport demand was carried out as part of the evaluation of the route.
This found that through traffic or by-passable traffic is “not the major component of the problem”. It said any improvement to the national road network needed to be developed within the context of an overall transport strategy for Galway that “comprehensively considered all modes” – this resulted in the GTS.
The ring road proposal is intended to facilitate more direct journeys, divert through traffic away from the city centre and facilitate the reallocation of road space in the city centre to active modes and public transport.
It said the project will result in a number of properties being demolished and businesses acquired.
But the statement from Arup said this “must be viewed and balanced in the context of the overall benefits that the proposed” ring road will offer.
“The N6 GCRR is the optimum solution for a new road and is consistent with proper planning and sustainable development,” the intro said.
Alongside the road, there will be another bridge put across the River Corrib, a tunnel beneath Lake Corrib and a viaduct structure extending from the River Corrib bridge to traverse the NUI Galway sporting campus. There would also be a tunnel put under Galway racecourse.
Arup said this road will “facilitate the population growth” envisaged in the city by “providing space on the transport network for allocation of space to public transport and active modes”.
Arup’s oral hearing introduction also discussed the 2006 proposal. It said this differed as the 2006 route was remote from the road network of the city as it stands and relied on the existing road network to “collect and disperse traffic”.
Arup argued that the new proposal “provides a much better transport solution” on the eastern side of the city as it supports land use planning for compact and sustainable growth, it “aligns better” with sustainable transport and climate change mitigation strategies. It also argues that the plan functions more effectively in providing an alternative orbital route, that it is “much better connected to the city road network” and has a lesser impact on the natural environment.
It said the previous route was located further north from the city, which would make it less effective in diverting trips. Trips would be shorter which would also reduce emissions.
It said that overall this proposal is “much less impactful” on the environment than the 2006 plan because it doesn’t adversely impact on Lough Corrib, provides pedestrian and cycle access between two significant employment centres in Parkmore and Ballybrit, and provides improved public transport options in line with the GTS.
It also said the “considerable benefits of the proposed road development far outweigh the potential negative impacts on the receiving environment”.
Taking issue with the proposal
Overall, 296 submissions and objections were made at the oral hearing, with just 16 in support of the proposed development.
Brendan Mulligan, a chartered engineer, has lived in Galway for more than 40 years. He spoke at the oral hearing about his concerns in relation to the ring road, especially in light of current understanding of climate change and challenges to biodiversity.
Speaking to Noteworthy, he said: “What we need is transformation, not incremental change. And, in fact, this road is not even delivering incremental change in the right direction. They’re delivering change in the wrong direction.”
Mulligan is in favour of public transport models, including a light rail for Galway (a ‘Gluas’).
“If you’re unfortunate enough to be living in or to work in Parkmore on the east side of the city, the traffic congestion there for people trying to get out of there in the evenings to get home, to collect their kids from childcare and that sort of thing, it can take them up to an hour just to get out of that industrial estate, and the impact on their wellbeing is just incredible, and it’s not good enough.”
He doesn’t believe this development is a sustainable option for the city’s development.
“Proposing a project which would have such a significant increase in emissions, it seems absolutely daft and completely contrary to government policy, and EU policy,” he said.
Instead, he suggested, “we’re building more roads, bigger roads to attract even more cars into an already congested city” and claimed it was an example of developer-led planning.
‘Our lives have been put on hold’
Deirdre Goggin is one of the 54 homeowners whose house would be acquired under current plans for the ring road. She lives with her husband in a bungalow in Castlegar, a small village just a few kilometres outside the city centre. Her home is located close to Ballindooley lake.
Goggin described feeling “stuck”; she was first approached by the county council in 2014 to say the house was on one of the routes they were considering.
This route did end up being the one selected for the proposal and as a result, Deirdre’s is one of the 54 houses that will be affected should the proposed road happen. She gave evidence of her situation at last year’s oral hearing. These residences are mostly located in semi-rural locations close to the city centre.
“Our lives have been on hold. We can’t plan. Based on the valuation, I’m looking at having to put my pension pot into buying a replacement home. Which is not what I’d planned to put my pension pot into,” Goggin told Noteworthy last month.
She said most of her neighbours who are also affected are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Instead of “retirement-proofing” their homes, they feel stuck in limbo.
She said the council is tied to the CPO process, but claims that the valuation for the house under this process would only buy a house in “one of the least desirable estates in Galway city”, as inflation and house prices have increased substantially since purchasing her home more than 30 years ago.
She and her neighbours have asked the council for a site on which a number of modest homes could be built, or for them to purchase new homes now so they can move on with the process.
However, as the plan is still under consideration by ABP, the process is stuck in limbo along with the homeowners.
“I’m not looking for a move to the promenade in Salthill.”
Goggin fears that the ring road proposal could go down the same route as the outer bypass – to a judicial review, adding additional years to the process.
And she said that while she doesn’t have a huge fear of moving herself, “for a lot of people who only lived in one place and this was their married home and never moved anywhere else, they’re finding it quite difficult to come to terms with it”.
“If they found us somewhere tomorrow, I’d be quite happy,” she said.
Ring road in a time of climate crisis
Architect Ciarán Ferrie is originally from Galway, but has lived in Dublin for years. He has been speaking up about the ring road and bypass proposals for a decade now.
He said this plan doesn’t seem “substantially different” to the 2006 proposal and said the plan has a “lack of ambition”.
In 2011, he objected that the bypass plan in place at that time was being used as a “silver bullet”.
“The difference now is we’re looking at it through the lens of the climate emergency,” he told Noteworthy.
He brings up three key claims heard in the oral hearing – that there was a lack of necessity shown for the proposed road, that the developers haven’t sufficiently considered the sustainable impact and that the plan breaches Ireland’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7% per year.
“The real concern is that not only is this ring road not going to solve the problem, but it will actually make it worse,” he said. He said the proposal “assumes that the people who are currently driving will continue to drive”, which should change to a “push towards people changing the way that they travel”.
He said the ring road as it stands is “overkill” in fixing the congestion problem in the city.
“My view would be that the bypass is premature. That we should be first of all trying to achieve better sustainable transport road shares by investing in public transport and by investing in cycling and walking. If, after we’ve done that, we still find that we’ve got a massive transport problem, then there might be a case for building a bypass and building another road.”
The Galway Transport Strategy stressed the importance of walking and cycling measures, but said that a “significant level of traffic congestion will remain in the city”, therefore requiring the ring road solution to free up road space and make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
Ferrie said: “There’s a public public perception about it.”
However, he believes that more people are “realising this is not the right solution” to the issue with Galway traffic.
A suburb-to-suburb solution?
Peter Butler represented An Taisce’s Galway division at the oral hearing last year.
In his submission, he outlined on behalf of the organisation that the ring road “would not solve the access issues in our city centre, it would simply allow people on the suburbs to get to other suburbs”.
He said it was “based on a theoretical simulation that everybody in every car knew every piece of traffic congestion, all over the city” to bypass by the shortest route home.
Their submission didn’t question the development process, but said the claims made for the requirement for a ring road were “overstated”.
Derrick Hambleton, a retired taxi driver and the former head of An Taisce Galway, also spoke at last year’s oral hearing. He attended the oral hearing for the 2006 bypass proposal and said there “weren’t too many [people] involved at that time”.
“It was controversial, but people hadn’t really realised the full import of what this road would do and I don’t think too many people were that interested in attending oral hearings,” he said.
“I like roads, I like good roads. I was a taxi driver so I appreciate good roads and being able to go where I need to go quickly and efficiently.
“It would be very easy for us to accept the road, ‘let’s get on with it and see what happens’; but some of us are looking ahead and can see the problem and just don’t think it’s right.”
Declan Varley, the group editor of the Galway Advertiser, is no stranger to the traffic situation in the city. He’s been reporting on the issue for decades, and attended last year’s oral hearing on the ring road proposal.
“The traffic congestion in Galway is something that’s gone back for decades really,” he said.
“The level of objection to this proposal wasn’t as vociferous as I thought it would be. Now (at the oral hearing), it was vociferous and emotional in terms of the people whose houses are going to be knocked.”
Varley said the withdrawal of objections from groups such as NUI Galway “took away a lot from the objection side of the hearing”.
The withdrawal of these objections was reported last February by the Galway Advertiser and other publications.
The Advertiser reported that the NUIG objection, which had centred on the impact of the road on its plans for an extended sports campus, was withdrawn as the university had put new plans in place that mitigated this impact.
A spokesperson for NUIG told Noteworthy: “Alterations have been made to the plans to minimise any effect on the University’s sports facilities.”
Another group to withdraw its objection to the ring road proposal was medical device company Boston Scientific. A spokesperson said the objection was withdrawn as the company was “in agreement with the final plan submitted at the oral hearing”.
Varley said Arup’s well-prepared responses around areas like ecology, wildlife and biodiversity “led to accusations that there was more focus and more attention being given to the animals and the wildlife and the birds than there was to the actual humans who are going to be impacted by this”.
This was addressed by Arup in the main statement of evidence presented at the oral hearing:
It said the route selected for the ring road has the “least number of residential demolitions, whilst also being the least impacting on the receiving environment, thus demonstrating that designated sites were not prioritised over human beings and communities or vice versa”.
Varley said: “Galway hasn’t ever done itself any great favours because in the past, it had projects like the Eyre Square which went on, and on, and on, and it ended up just being a concrete plaza. So the public’s faith in projects around Galway is never very strong, however people do know that the traffic situation is so bad.”
But he said there is still a feeling that “it does need the roadway to actually take the traffic out of the city centre”.
Although most of the submissions about the project at last year’s oral hearing were objections, Varley believes the average person would be happy if the proposal is approved.
“I’d say 70% of people will be pleased if it’s approved. Maybe 30% will not I’d say because there will be a feeling that it will go the way of other Galway projects that would be a massive construction project that will dominate the city for three or four years and cause a lot of disruption.
“There will be a lot of mixed feelings about it. And it’s hard to know which way it will go because the Galway project in the past was turned down on environmental concerns. The environmental concerns this time seem to be addressed very, very well. The human concerns seem to have been addressed as well because there will be a CPO process.”
Galway County Council, Galway City Council, the planners and engineers involved on the council, and Arup, all declined requests for interviews in relation to this piece. They said as An Bord Pleanála’s decision process is ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment or discuss the proposal at this time.
A decision is due from An Bord Pleanála on this proposal at the end of this month.
If approved, the scheme will progress to the enabling and procurement phase.
“The purpose of this phase is to prepare the scheme for tender of the main construction contract, carry out the tender process and progress the land acquisition and advance works contracts,” said Andrew Moore from Transport Infrastructure Ireland in response to a PQ from Galway West TD Noel Grealish.
The oral hearing ended on 4 November last year and ABP is considering the Statutory Planning approvals for the CPO and the Environmental Impact Assessment Report.
“Transport Infrastructure Ireland has provided a grant allocation of €1,000,000 to Galway County Council for the scheme this year,” Moore wrote.
Several interviewees believe this proposal could end up in the courts if it approved, much like the 2006 scheme, although it is uncertain who is willing to take the proposal to this level.
With a decision due this month, and uncertainty around the implications of this decision, it remains to be seen whether the long-hailed ring road will be part of the solution needed to fix Galway’s traffic issues.
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