A TRAINING CENTRE purported by the government to “help make transport accessible for everyone” ending up costing €1.5 million more in public funds than its initial grant allocation of €2 million.
Disabled persons’ organisations have raised multiple concerns about the development of the Wayfinding Centre which “simulates real-world public transport scenarios” since it was first mooted.
Now, having been built by Vision Ireland (previously the National Council for the Blind of Ireland), more questions are being raised. This comes after four ministers attended a well-publicised preview event earlier this week.
Advocates are asking why additional public money was invested in a simulation, given the ongoing accessibility obstacles facing disabled people in the real world.
The Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) told Noteworthy that they felt that the project would “divert attention from more fundamental work to improve transport provisions generally”.
“There are significant infrastructural challenges in order to make transport fully accessible for disabled people in Ireland.” These require urgent State investment as opposed to investing millions into this project, the ILMI spokesperson added.
The centre will open in April and aims to provide training to a number of groups, including disabled people and transport workers. It encompasses 3,000 sq metres of a former print works building in Glasnevin in Dublin.
Costing millions from the public purse
The overall cost of the project nearly tripled to €7.8 million from late 2020 when the capital cost was estimated at €2.7 million.
Over €3.6 million of this is made up of public money – almost all (€3.5m) from the National Transport Authority (NTA). That is €1.5 million more than the initial NTA grant which Vision Ireland told Noteworthy was for “up to €2m”.
Dublin City Council gave €125,000, according to Vision Ireland. In 2021, the council said they were “not involved in funding this building”. When asked about this, a response was not received in time for publication.
The remainder of the funding was raised through charitable endowment contributions as well as a €1 million contribution from Vision Ireland itself.
This does not include “the cost of items donated to the centre”, the NTA said.
Vision Ireland sent us a list of these “donated” items, but not their worth. In addition to significant donations from the private sector, such as the front of an airplane, it included the following from State companies or bodies:
- Irish Rail – a DART carriage, platform furniture and technical support
- Transport Infrastructure Ireland – a purpose-built Luas carriage (previously reported to cost €100,000) and technical support
- Bus Éireann – an expressway coach bus
- Dublin City Council – paving, public infrastructure and a crossing system
Robbie Sinnott, chair of Voice of Vision Impairment (VVI), the only disabled person’s organisation exclusively for vision-impaired people in Ireland, called the centre a “white elephant” when Noteworthy spoke to him in 2021.
He has not changed his opinion and, this week, said that it was “an utter waste of [public] money”, “absolutely appalling” and should in no way have ever “seen the light of day”.
Explaining the more than doubling in overall cost, a spokesperson for Vision Ireland said the initial budget was estimated before it went out to tender and that this “demonstrated that the construction cost was underestimated”.
They added that “the project has evolved over its lifespan, now providing areas for innovation and testing of the built environment”.
Like all building projects inflation has played a significant part in the rise of the project cost and delays were encountered during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the annual operation cost, estimated as €500,000 back in 2021, Vision Ireland did not provide an updated figure, but the spokesperson said:
“The Wayfinding Centre is confident that there will be sufficient ongoing support to allow the centre to operate. It is also envisaged the centre will engage in funded research projects.”
An NTA spokesperson sent a lengthy note on the centre when the €1.5 million increase in grant funding was put to them.
It stated that “the procurement and delivery of the project” followed all requirements of the NTA project approval guidelines and the public spending code. “The NTA required that the centre was pan disability and agreed to part-fund the project.”
The Department of Transport confirmed that it knew “of the funding amounts provided by the NTA”.
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Government aware of opposition to project
The Department was also “aware that some members of the disability community were opposed to the NTA providing funding towards the Wayfinding Centre”, a spokesperson said.
This was clear when a Department briefing note from last September stated there were “strong objections” to the centre’s establishment. The note was released to Noteworthy through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
Is it concerned about this? A spokesperson said the “Department believes that it is a positive initiative that serves the greater good and will provide practical advice and assistance to all members of the disabled community and organisations”.
A key issue raised as part of our previous investigation was an absence of consultation prior to a commitment of funding by government in June 2019.
Noteworthy revealed both the Department and NTA knew that other disability organisations were unaware of the proposals before then-Minister Shane Ross made the funding announcement.
In 2021, Vision Ireland told Noteworthy they would have liked to complete “further consultation” before the project entered “the public domain”. Meanwhile, the NTA were satisfied that the charity “engaged extensively with other disability groups at the appropriate time”.
Involvement of various stakeholders has occurred since, including the setting up of an Inclusion Access Advisory Group to inform Vision Ireland’s “decisions around accessibility in the build and operation of the centre”. The group’s terms of reference include involvement of disabled people and those with an “access need”.
But lack of consultation on the granting of millions in State funds still frustrates disabled persons’ organisations who spoke to Noteworthy this week. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCPRD) the State has an obligation to consult and actively involve them.
The Department of Transport said that though it is involved in securing overall public transport funding, this is distributed by the NTA, who decides on “the amount of funding allocated to individual projects and programmes, which includes the Wayfinding Centre and the Travel Assist Scheme”.
The Department added that it “will continue to comply with all guidance” from the responsible ministers regarding the implementation of the UNCRPD, including in relation to consultations with the disability community.
Training in home environment ‘best practice’
That NTA stated that “the centre will allow people engage with the various transport modules at their own pace, without the stress of a real world journey”.
But when people lose their sight, “they need to train in their home environment”, according to Voice of Vision Impairment’s Robbie Sinnott. “If they’re using public transport, it has to be learned in context. It’s not an abstract thing. It’s just best practice.”
The State purse is “not a bottomless pit”, he said, concerned that the funding was diverted from other potential schemes. He felt it would have been better used to roll out the Travel Assistance Scheme nationwide. This offers people training on local travel routes.
This scheme was referenced in the same Department of Transport briefing note from September which stated that the Wayfinding Centre “will complement the expansion of the free Travel Assist Scheme from the Dublin area to the regional cities”.
Funding for this scheme increased from just under €245,000 in 2022 to €640,000 this year, according to the NTA. It is currently operating in Dublin and Cork but hiring began in Limerick last year and “Galway and Waterford will follow in 2024″.
On whether expansion beyond this to other areas will happen in the coming years, the spokesperson said that the NTA “will monitor and see what expansion can be done in further years, pending funding”.
By Maria Delaney of Noteworthy
Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal. This article was funded in its entirety by our investigative fund.
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