An important decision faces Limerick’s metropolitan councillors, one that will define Limerick’s future, the city’s ability to attract investment, to hold on to talent and to pursue its ambition to be a thriving, growing and attractive European city. The political gymnastics currently on display with respect to this upcoming decision - the South Circular Road to city centre active travel scheme - however, as much as anything, indicate that Limerick needs a Directly Elected Mayor as soon as possible if our ambition and potential is to be realised.
The South Circular Road scheme has to be built as planned. It is a vital piece of the transport network that safely connects the city centre to schools, colleges, the University Hospital and Raheen Industrial Estate. All along the route it is going to give much needed safe connectivity to thousands of Limerick citizens. We need to openly and sincerely discuss the myriad of long-term benefits to this plan and leave the politics of it aside.
By conjuring up amendments to the scheme which will ultimately amount to diluting it and make it less safe, less beneficial to the city and one which will fail to meet its objectives, some councillors are seeking to undercut the city's future. They seem eager to protect the privileges of the few over improving the lives of the many.
We need to be careful about the language we use in terms of accessibility and safety. It is not good enough to state things are safe when they coincide with our beliefs and not safe when they don’t. We know what best practices are in this area and it’s not good enough to abandon the safety of many for the convenience of a few.
In an approach reminiscent of Orwell’s “1984” where good is bad and bad is good, councillors are painting a picture that the scheme as designed is actually unsafe rather than safe. Instead of having segregated lanes for walking, cycling and driving, as per best practice and the design guidance, their amendment would have vehicles and bikes co-existing in a shared space. Quite conveniently this is a configuration that retains the privilege of on-street car parking for some residents. Back in reality an amendment along these lines would clearly make the scheme unsafe. And it would facilitate cycling in one direction only. As such, it would reduce the project to the point that it is nothing more than a road resurfacing exercise.
Councillors might feel they know better than the qualified professionals who designed it, but pushing an amendment to water down the scheme and reduce safety would undermine the engineers, local politics itself and our system of local government, and will almost certainly leave the local authority open to legal consequences. That is, of course, if the National Transport Authority agrees to fund an active travel project that has been so blatantly butchered.
The process of acquiring planning consent for local authority projects such as this one is known as ‘Part 8’. Councillors can vote to accept, reject or amend a scheme that is put before them. But it was never intended that the councillors themselves would be the final arbiters of what is safe or what design meets the project objectives. They are not engineers. It begs the question whether local representatives should be the gatekeepers for these kinds of strategically important projects.
I have no doubt that when Limerick holds an election for a directly elected mayor, the electorate will support the candidate that has a track record of resolve, leadership and vision and one who has put that greater good over narrow interests. When a directly elected mayor is in place we will see an end to the backflips, somersaults and chicanery of the sort that is currently playing out before us.
A strong mayor’s focus will not be solely on the here and now. A strong mayor will have a vision to promote and deliver a better future for the people who currently have no voices in any debate. A strong mayor will have a vision for a thriving Limerick. In the here and now it is very easy to do nothing and even garner praise for inaction but we need to think of Limerick 20 years from now, and beyond that again. It is the role of local government to look to the future and to build towards the future but that will only be achieved by making stands on the quality of life issues that matter. We cannot build a first rate European city while adopting second rate solutions.
Families and individuals who live in Dooradoyle and Raheen, who work in the industrial estate, University Hospital Limerick, the Crescent Shopping Centre, our young people who attend school in Mungret, St. Paul’s, the Crescent Comprehensive, Laurel Hill, St. Clement’s, An Modhscoil, Limerick School Project and a host of other places will get a safe cycling connection to the city and to their places of work or education if councillors support the proposal that is before them on February 20th. If they choose to water it down and make it less safe they are doing a disservice to those people, who number in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Why should one large suburb of Limerick - Raheen and Dooradoyle - be denied the infrastructure that has recently been agreed for the north side of Limerick, or that which already exists between Castletroy and the city centre? It should not.
Nor should it need to be pointed out that while the project will largely serve the aforementioned residential areas, workplaces and schools, there will of course be benefits to people living along the route also. They will get safe cycling infrastructure outside their front gates and their homes will appreciate in value.
As well as being a critical enabler of growth, job creation and regional development, this infrastructure is obviously important as a response to climate change and to create healthy communities. It is unconscionable that any politician is considering bending to narrow local interests and to undermining this vital investment in our city and seeking to prevent the greater good being served. But that is where we are and, if metropolitan councillors do opt to make the South Circular Road to city centre project unsafe and unviable, it will be clear that Limerick needs a directly elected mayor with executive functions and devolved powers as soon as possible.