Metro mania: the €2.5bn plan to create 4,000 jobs
Should we burrow ahead until we see light, or is it just tunnel vision, asks Paul Melia
The biggest construction project in the history of the State, bringing 4,000 jobs with it, is set to start within months -- if it gets the final green light. We should know by the end of October whether the €2.5bn Metro North light-rail project will go ahead or fall victim to the recession.
If approved, Dubliners can expect to see moving statues, homeless ducks, a disappearing island and partial closure of one of the city's most-loved public parks.
And if An Bord Pleanala gives the go-ahead -- and the Government backs up its repeated commitments that the project will proceed -- the streetscape of Dublin will change forever as the biggest public works project in the EU gets under way.
The 'Big Dig' needed to put 11km of railway underground will result in the closure of 20pc of St Stephen's Green to the public. Four statues on O'Connell Street -- Daniel O'Connell, William Smith O'Brien, Jim Larkin and John Gray -- will be moved to Collins Barracks, and 7km of roads north of Ballymun will be dug up to install tracks for the tram system.
Massive tunnel-boring machines (TBMs) will build the tunnels, and traffic will be affected on Westmoreland Street, the key link between the main shopping districts in the city centre.
But when the works are finished, up to 8,000 passengers will use the system every hour, with trams running every five minutes. Dublin will finally have a decent public transport system expected from a population used to the convenience of fast, regular rail services enjoyed in London, New York and EU capitals.
The project is contained in the Government's Transport 21 plan, unveiled in 2005 when we were rich and had the wallets to match our ambition to drag our transport systems into the 21st century.
A key project was Metro North, an 18km light-rail line to run from St Stephen's Green to Belinstown, north of Swords. Serving 17 stations, it would provide a high-speed, 20-minute journey to the city centre from the airport and connect with the other public transport hubs.
But there is opposition. Last month, businessman Colm Carroll, who owns nine gift shops in the city centre, launched 'No To Metro North', a campaign to stop the project that he said would "rip the whole city apart", resulting in thousands of job losses and causing the closure of businesses.
The Dublin City Business Community was also concerned, citing "potentially catastrophic impacts" on the city, but the Chamber of Commerce said it's needed.
The Railway Procurement Agency (RPA), charged with delivering the project, said that as much of the work would be underground, street-level impacts would be managed. But it said there could be some disruption.
"The main impacts will be on Westmoreland Street," project director Rory O'Connor said.
"There shouldn't be any change on O'Connell Street -- two lanes of traffic in each direction will remain open -- and a new public transport bridge linking Marlborough Street and Hawkins Street will eliminate the need for buses to turn around on the quays.
"There'll be two tunnels and tunnel-boring machines should be launched early in 2013 and will cut through about 75 metres a week. At the same time, work will begin northwards at street level and there will be disruption on the Ballymun Road and at Swords.
"This is not a Celtic Tiger project. The secret to getting people on to public transport is it's fast and reliable. They want to get close to where they're going and this serves four hospitals, two universities, Croke Park, railway and Luas interchanges, the airport and shopping centres like Swords, O'Connell Street, Grafton Street and Ballymun," Mr O'Connor said.
"We're building a better Dublin, the type of city people can easily move around and the type of city that's demanded by young professionals. While we're doing that, Dublin will be open for business," he added.
Four monuments on O'Connell Street would be gone for five years, and Donncha O'Dulaing from the RPA said the entire north-west corner of St Stephen's Green would be closed from the pedestrian gate at the top of Dawson Street, to Glovers Alley beside the existing Luas stop.
When complete, that corner of the green will be pedestrianised and closed to all traffic.
"The Green goes back to the 17th century, and the railing was put up in the early part of the 19th century," he said. "The railing and plinth wall will be removed and put in storage and hoarding will be erected.
"The Fusiliers Arch will be protected in situ. It's an interesting challenge. The arch was put in place in 1906 and it's a construction of its time, meaning there's poured concrete in it. To try and take it apart would be very difficult -- you could cause a lot of damage. It will be placed on a temporary support and once the (underground) station roof is constructed, the arch will be placed on top of it."
While the bridge between the two ponds will be open to pedestrians, the ducks will be moved to new homes. A number of statues will also be relocated to the south side of the park.
"Lord Ardilaun, of the Guinness family, put in place the design for the Green as we now know it which opened to the public in 1888. He's seated opposite the Royal College of Surgeons and will be moved. Robert Emmet is being moved as well."
Street furniture, 600 metres of footrails, granite paving, light stands and bollards will also be removed and put in storage. The work will take about six months, and the heavy construction works will then begin. Forty of the 800 trees on the green will be removed.
The project is ready to go. Transport Minister Noel Dempsey has repeatedly said that it will go ahead, and all that's needed now is the green light from An Bord Pleanala, and final sign-off from the Government.
The project will be funded under a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model, meaning the private sector pays for construction and the State repays the cost over time.
The European Investment Bank has offered a €500m loan for the project, which should help attract banks. Not going ahead or postponing the project would be disastrous, industry sources said.
"Metro North is the only show in town for 2011," one said.
"Companies have spent a lot of time and money preparing for this process, and for it not to go ahead would be disastrous. If this project doesn't go ahead, no PPP project will ever go ahead in Ireland because we'll be seen as a joke."
Originally due to open in 2012, it is not expected before 2016, and its fate now hangs in the balance as the Government attempts to juggle its finances.
With cuts across all spending areas, people living outside Dublin will claim they're being ignored if the capital gets billions of euro for a light-rail system.
But 4,000 construction jobs will be created, and repayments don't begin until it's up and running, by which stage -- fingers crossed -- the economy should be performing again.