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Dull but worthy capital plan needed, not election gimmick

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There are 2,387 miles of unfinished roadworks in Britain, according to estimates

There are 2,387 miles of unfinished roadworks in Britain, according to estimates

There are 2,387 miles of unfinished roadworks in Britain, according to estimates

Despite the enormous spend on capital projects to be announced today, it's clear there won't be enough money in the kitty to deliver every grand project deemed worthwhile by the Coalition.

We might be in a better financial position today than just a few short years ago, but we're far from rich. That's why all capital investment programmes need to be more 'dull but worthy' rather than focused on flash projects aimed at winning votes, at least for the foreseeable future.

There are priorities, such as social housing, broadband investment, energy efficiency, flood defences, health services and schools. But investment in big ticket items like rail links or roads projects must be very carefully evaluated before being given the go-ahead.

Transport infrastructure is notoriously expensive to operate and maintain, and we don't have a great track record in this dull but necessary area.

It's largely because we have so many roads. Back in 1910, the newly-formed Roads Board noted that, by comparison with Britain, Ireland was "much over-roaded". The State had almost 94,000km of road for a population of just under 4.4 million. By comparison, Scotland had less than 40,000km for a larger populace, and England and Wales had 242,000km for more than 36 million people.

Today, there's around 100,000km, but it's not being looked after as best it could. There's a backlog of repairs, and the Department of Transport says there's €300m missing in annual budgets just to keep our transport network in a steady-state condition.

So if we are currently under-investing in basic maintenance, why are we considering investing in new road and rail projects?

It's because much of the road network is rubbish. The road between Cork and Limerick is hopeless, but a new motorway will cost €1bn. One solution to Galway's traffic problems is a bypass, which could cost €600m.

Improvements are needed between Tralee and Limerick and from Dublin to Sligo.

Adare needs a bypass, and some €100m alone is needed to upgrade Cork's Dunkettle interchange and remove one of the worst bottlenecks in the State outside of Dublin. There are countless others.

The Naas dual carriageway is also overloaded, and investment in this area is welcome as it removes the last bottleneck on a road servicing the three biggest cities on the island, Belfast, Dublin and Cork.

The water charging crisis has demonstrated the perils of under-investing in basic maintenance. We need to focus on 'sweating' the existing infrastructure we have - that means upgrading where feasible, wringing the maximum value out of what we already hold and avoiding spending scarce resources unless it can be demonstrated it represents best value for money.

Irish Independent