Tuesday 25 June 2019

Transport boss making up for lost time

The NTA's bus blueprint is vital to ease congestion and speed up journeys, CEO Anne Graham tells Samantha McCaughren

Anne Graham, CEO of the National Transport Authority. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Anne Graham, CEO of the National Transport Authority. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Mention the words BusConnects in certain parts of Dublin and you will be met with a tirade on how the plan will ruin the city, cut off crucial bus routes and lead to the destruction of trees. The radical proposed overhaul of the capital's bus routes, which requires new wider roads or corridors in several areas of the city, has become highly controversial.

But not any more controversial than Anne Graham, chief executive of the National Transport Authority (NTA), was prepared for.

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"It's not unexpected," she says from her office near Charlemont Luas stop. "Because when you are making the significant changes that we're talking about we were expecting this kind of level of concern."

Wider roads will require some people giving up parts of their front gardens and trees being felled. It's the sort of plan that communities get very upset about.

"On the bus corridors, we always knew that this was going to be a challenging project because it's where we want to widen the roads where possible to provide the bus priority and segregated cycle lanes.

"It's really when you see the details on the maps, when people see that their properties are impacted obviously, they are concerned," she says.

"In some parts of the city, people are extremely passionate."

However, Graham is convinced it is the right thing to do for the city. It forms a central part of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, which was approved by government back in 2016.

The strategy sets out the long-term vision for how the NTA will help meet the transport demands for the growth of the city and support the projected increase in population and in economic development.

While BusConnects is the NTA's biggest project, as it affects the greatest number of people, it is also overseeing the MetroLink, transport plans for Cork and Galway as well as improvements to rural transport.

BusConnects may not be popular, but Graham believes that its long-term benefits must not be lost sight of.

"We think what we can gain, what the city will gain in terms of the benefits that would accrue, is a hugely efficient bus service, much shorter journey times. It will give people time back in their commute so that they are not spending a significant part of their day actually travelling and being stuck in a congested city."

That may not be of much of a consolation to residents worried about how a bus route change will cut them off from a local village to those losing chunks of their front gardens, but Graham says that all the concerns raised will be taken into account where possible.

She says that the consultations on this and other plans are much more than PR exercises.

"We don't operate like that," she says. "An example of that is through the MetroLink consultation where there was again a significant number of submissions related to a number of issues. We took those on board and I think it's been acknowledged that when we published the preferred route you could see the changes that we made as a result of that consultation."

For the NTA, it may be a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't. The changes to the MetroLink were viewed in some quarters as the NTA capitulating to the well-heeled residents of south Dublin.

But Graham says she will again take residents' views on board.

On the new bus routes she says: "We listened to the consultation, there was over 30,000 submissions. There was a lot of resistance to some of the changes that we were proposing but we have taken those on board and we will be going out with a revised network in September of this year."

Graham knows some of the areas affected particularly well. She went to school in Rathmines, a part of Dublin which would face significant changes under the bus corridors proposals.

As a young student, Graham was good at maths but didn't know what she wanted to study. "But it was down to a career day. One of the people I was in school with, her father was an engineer and he came in to speak about engineering and I just thought 'ooh' and it just clicked."

Graham was one of only 10 female students in a class of 200. While the numbers of women studying engineering have increased over the years they remain low.

"While the other sciences have definitely improved there is still an issue about women taking on engineering as a career," says Graham, who is a big advocate for more women entering the profession.

Soon after graduating, Graham joined Dublin City Council, working first in the area of drainage.

She went on to work in several areas including roads, housing and project management, before moving into transport.

She was then asked to join the National Transport Authority, which was set up 10 years ago, growing out of what was the Dublin Transportation Office, a small advisory office with no statutory powers.

It now manages contracts with State bodies for the delivery of public transport on a national basis.

One of the key things that the NTA was tasked with was a Dublin transport strategy which was originally brought forward to government in 2011. Although quite similar to the current plan, it was rejected, partly because of the state of the country's finances.

She admits that the BusConnects plan is radical and one of the most ambitious envisaged for any city. "As a city we're probably providing a very high level of bus corridors and bus priority," she says.

There has been something similar done in London, "but probably in terms of population it's probably a more radical plan because we rely so much on buses".

"You know other cities have underground systems and light rail systems that they can rely on. But because our city has developed to being very low-density, the bus is the most effective and most efficient means of providing services."

One argument against bus corridors in the capital is the impact they will have in villages in the suburbs. Local home owners and businesses complain that lanes for cars buses and bikes will ruin the characters of Dublin's older and often historic villages.

According to Graham, these urban villages already have problems due to traffic.

"The urban villages, as they're called, are already quite congested with car traffic, so they have significant volumes of cars as well as buses going through them day in day out. So, if we didn't invest in this, in the cycling and the bus infrastructure, they would become even more congested.

"This is offering an alternative which is providing for bus and cycling and at the same time trying to calm the villages as well from the point of view of cars."

The NTA is also offering to invest in these villages, with lighting or seating being examples of the amenities it can offer.

However, this will not be enough to quell the opposition in many areas.

While Dublin's traffic problems may get a disproportionate share of the headlines, the NTA is working on rural transport also.

"We recognise there are gaps in our public transport provision right across the country," says Graham.

"There are towns like Kilkenny that don't have a bus service. The city doesn't have a bus service. We need a town service in Carlow."

A number of pilots are in place, including subsidies for local hackneys. The plan is to help cover the extra insurance costs for such drivers.

The role of politicians in the NTA's plans is one that has gathered some attention - BusConnects was a key topic at the doorstop for many local election candidates.

Graham doesn't have a problem with this.

"We're accountable to the Oireachtas for any of the decisions that we make and any of the spending that we put through our organisation.

"We live in a democracy and there's definitely a strong role for politicians, both local and national, in helping us to develop our policy, and also, in guiding us in terms of what are the key issues that are arising for them locally."

All of the plans being developed have funding allocated in the National Development Plan.

There is €2.4bn earmarked for BusConnects, €3bn for Metro Link, and €2bn for expansion of the Dart.

Of course, all of the projects are dependent on the Irish economy continuing to thrive, something that's not guaranteed with Brexit becoming more uncertain by the day. And there is plenty of competition for the funding, with the likes of the National Children's Hospital and housing among the other needs in focus.

Graham believes the transport plans should remain high on the list.

"Even with the current population and the current growth we've got a congested city that's already costing the city €350m a year just on lost time."

Graham says she has to think about the long-terms benefits of the NTA's plans, rather than dwell on opposition. "You can't shut it out completely because obviously you have to be listening as well and you have to know what the impacts are on the ground.

But you do have to be very forward-thinking in terms of what you're focusing on what you're trying to deliver.

"It's not about taking these things personally, it's about what we're trying to do and the impact that we're making on people's lives."

Curriculum Vitae

Name

Anne Graham

Age

55

Position

CEO of National Transport Authority

Lives

Drumcondra, Dublin

Education

Engineering degree, UCD and Masters from DCU and UCD

Previous experience

Several roles in Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council

Family

Married with two grown-up children

Pastimes

Reading, walking and travelling

Currently reading

I tend to read magazines such as the New Yorker

Favourite film

I'm a bit of a spaghetti western fan, so I love any spaghetti western at all

Business lessons

What would you say to a young student considering studying engineering?

I think it’s a fantastic degree. I feel I’ve had a fantastic career, many opportunities doing many, many different projects. It can offer you a huge variety in terms of a career.

What advice would you have have for someone trying to further their career?

I think it’s good to be open to new opportunities because when I started my career I think I changed job nearly every two years. It’s just to be open to trying new things and challenging yourself by moving into different areas.

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