Sunday 22 April 2018

Traffic gridlock and Luas works push Dublin businesses to breaking point

Desmond Coffey, Director of Farm Restaurant on Dawson Street, in front of the Luas works
Desmond Coffey, Director of Farm Restaurant on Dawson Street, in front of the Luas works
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

Attempt to walk from O'Connell Bridge to Grafton Street and you will find yourself funnelled through steel barriers, pushed up against hundreds of other commuters, marching shoulder to shoulder to the sound of industrial-grade drills.

The thoroughfares that connect the country's biggest shopping streets have been ripped apart at the seams. The cause is the construction of a new Luas line, which will finally connect the Green and Red lines. The project is being built by a joint venture between Irish builders Sisk and Portuguese railway builder Steconfer.

It will cost €368m, one of the largest capital investment projects undertaken by the present government. When completed the line will run for 5.6km between St Stephen's Green and the Iarnród Éireann Broombridge Station on the Maynooth railway line.

But for now, businesses and shoppers must contend with gaping holes in the city's main streets, with roadways outside hotspots such as the Westin Hotel turned into building sites.

This and other negatives like heavy congestion and high city centre parking fees are increasingly pushing shoppers away to big suburban shopping centres.

Luas works at locations like O'Connell street, around College Green, up onto Dawson Street and the Stephen's Green area will not be finished for another six months, confirmed Grainne Mackin, head of communications for the Luas Cross City Project.

"At the moment we are laying southside tracks; once that is finished the reverse northside tracks will have to be laid." In total the project will take around two more years to complete, expected to open to the public in October 2017. Once tracks are laid at the end of 2016 then we move to the next stage, building stops, putting in cabling, ticket machines and so on."

There will be some reprieve in December. Non-essential work will be curtailed in agreement with Dublin City Council and business bodies. This means on Dawson Street, one of the most heavily disrupted parts of the city, will pause completely. But traffic-causing work on the Trinity side of Nassau Street and Grafton Street will continue, as will work on Dominick Street Upper and Lower, Marlborough Street, Hawkins Street and Westmoreland Street.

For Dublin's restaurants, it is nothing short of a nightmare.

"Christmas is a vitally important time and here we are with the city centre looking like a warzone" said Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.

"From the perspective of city centre restaurants, the Luas works have gotten progressively worse. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. People are still coming to restaurants, but the construction is causing serious inconveniences. Travel time for customers, taxi pick-ups, deliveries, everything is delayed. Irish businesses pay the highest commercial rates in Europe - scandalous rates - and we get a second-world service in return.

"I cannot understand why there was not a major push to get work between O'Connell Street and Stephen's Green done by December 1 and tarmacked over to free up that vital artery. There are massive bottlenecks around College Green that are causing congestion all around the city; I've never seen congestion like this in my life. They should have had a 24 hour work schedule for that area. The city is on its knees."

Mackin said a 24/7 work schedule isn't an option. "There are lots of stakeholders, from the council, from businesses, from residents, who didn't want noise at night".

"It's not a question of resources, that we've decided that 5.30pm is the right time to clock off. We had to keep lots of different groups happy." She could not clarify what exact agreement was in place for weekend work but said some degree of weekend work was taking place. Night work does happen, where necessary, she added. It will happen over the next two weeks, as rails are lifted.

Desmond Coffey, owner of the Farm Restaurant on Dawson Street, said that while the works will improve the city, some of the sites looked like disaster zones on a bad day. "Of course it will be great when it is finished but I hope we will all still be here when it is finished," he said.

Taxis feel the same; you won't meet a Dublin taxi driver who does not feel aggrieved with how the project has been delivered.

"The recent Luas roadworks have increased congestion in the city centre, frustrating for both Hailo drivers and passengers," said Hailo Ireland chief executive Tim Arnold. "Some of the taxi ranks in the area have been closed by the roadworks, making it increasingly tougher for shoppers to find a taxi in the area.

Retailers are hurting too. "We welcome Luas cross city as a vital boost to the city's future economic well-being," said Retail Ireland director Thomas Burke. "That said, a construction project of such magnitude will have an inevitable impact on the city centre's business community and anecdotally, we have already had reports of reduced footfall in certain locations.

"We continue to encourage all parties to do everything possible to minimise the effect on trade during the construction phase and to acknowledge the critical importance of ensuring that the city centre remains open and easily accessible as an attractive and desirable destination for shoppers, particularly as the busy festive trading period gets under way."

No businesses will be compensated for loss of trade as a result of the works, Mackin said.

"We have maintained full access for businesses. We don't think there are any issues when it comes to a loss of business."

One thing is clear, despite the disruption caused, almost everyone involved believes the project is a necessary one.

Years of underinvestment in Dublin's public transport system poses a more serious threat to businesses than the Luas works.

Around three in five (57pc) of Dublin companies feel traffic congestion is having an increasing impact on their business, a recent survey by Dublin Chamber of Commerce found.

The survey indicated that many Dublin businesses are having to change the way in which they operate in order to combat the effects of congestion, right down to employee working hours.

A significant number of companies are allowing staff to work more from home, while others said that they have had to increase technology spend to allow people to work remotely.

One firm admitted to having moved its business from the city centre to outside the M50. Another said it had moved from the city centre to a business park in the suburbs, which has resulted in staff members reducing commute times by one hour per day.

One thing is for sure: everyone involved cannot wait for the day the new Luas line opens. "The sooner it's finished the better," says Simon Cooper, retail expert with property agents CBRE. "It will bring huge benefits to Dublin city centre - better traffic flows and a link between the two biggest shopping streets in the country, Henry Street and Grafton Street.

"You're never going to walk between the two on a cold and windy day; now shoppers will have an alternative. It will have a major benefit. It will also help to encourage shoppers from the southside to venture north, and vice versa."

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