06 January 2006

The road to hell?


Chaos and gridlock are expected to engulf North Belfast as work begins on the reconstruction of the Westlink and M2 motorway

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Westlink - click to view - photo from TNN

In less than two weeks work on upgrading the North’s busiest roads in one of the largest civil constructions seen here – the new Westlink – will begin.
The controversial work, criticised by environment groups for bringing more cars on to the roads, is expected to bring with it massive disruption over at least a three-year period.
Gridlock is expected on the already stretched roads system and huge traffic queues will affect close to half a million motorists each week, according to official estimates. Officials say commuters should add half an hour on to the journey times – critics say that is hopelessly optimistic.
Concerns have been raised as to what impact the traffic congestion will have on other main routes and surrounding residential areas in the North of the city. Carrickhill community stalwart Frank Dempsey expressed alarm over the impact of pollution and drivers using his community as a ‘rat-run’ to get across town.
“The traffic is going to back right up and you’ll have a knock-on effect the whole way across the Westlink, right across to the New Lodge,” he said.
“I am very worried about this, especially for the local kids who will be going to school in the mornings. How are they going to get across these main routes when the volume of traffic will be doubled?
“Commuters will begin to use areas like Carrickhill in the inner-city as short-cuts and it will be us who feel the full impact. These areas will become rat-runs, which is my big fear.”
Frank questioned whether enough thought had gone into the plans.
“Everyone agrees that something had to be done about the Westlink but it’s how you do it, and when you do it that’s the key. I don’t think enough thought has gone into the impact it will have on communities like Carrickhill. It’s bad enough now with the parking that is blocking these streets making it very difficult for emergency services to get in and out and for the roads to be cleaned. But what is it going to be like when you pile all this on top of it?” he asked.
The Westlink reconstruction will also affect hospital and emergency services in North and West Belfast and staff and patients travelling to the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Plans to widen the main arterial route have been in the pipeline for some time and the Department of Regional Development’s Roads Service has unveiled a strategy that it hopes will prevent the road network from collapsing into chaos and keep criticism to a minimum.
Anyone who has attempted to make their way into the city centre or across town via this route during rush hour knows the road is already congested. But environment groups say the answer is to improve public transport and not make roads bigger only to see them again become congested. The levels of traffic have now reached crisis level, with the Westlink resembling a huge car park at peak times, as the 65,000 cars that use it each day inevitably get clogged up.
So how does the government plan to alleviate this problem? The proposal is for the current two lanes in both directions on the Westlink to be expanded to three, running from Divis Street to the Blacks Road. The bridges at Stockman’s Lane will be replaced and in the most significant part of the plan, a three-lane underpass will be constructed at Broadway along with a partial underpass at Grosvenor Road. Bus lanes will be introduced at Broadway and Roden Street.
The Roads Service says the work will take up to three years and this is causing a great many people alarm, as it is likely traffic will be badly affected. That’s despite official assurances that two lanes will remain open in each direction at all times.
To make the upheaval as bearable as possible the Roads Service is combining old methods with new, to make sure drivers know at all times what is going on.
It has pledged to measure journey times through the roadworks and these will be constantly updated and put on display screens, to be displayed at key junctions.
Any road closures that will take place over the three years will be done so only after a week’s notice, to give drivers adequate time to arrange other routes. Travel and roadworks information will be provided in local newspapers and by radio, and through www.trafficwatchni.com.
The Roads Service has also invested in an information email system.
By signing up for active notification through www.roadsni.gov.uk/westlinktrafficalert, drivers will get up-to-the-minute reports on the road works in their inbox.
Refreshingly, Royal Victoria Hospital bosses have looked upon the problem as an opportunity, and this week announced their ‘Westlink Healthlink’ initiative to get staff to walk or cycle to and from work.
Divisional Manager for Roads Service, Joe Drew, said he understood the public concern, but due to the scale of the work that was going on, congestion was unavoidable.
“A civil engineering project of this scale, along with a very confined site, will undoubtedly cause disruption. Roads Service is fully aware of the importance of this road link to road users and is planning a range of measures to minimise any disruption as far as possible.
“The temporary traffic management strategy for the construction phase of M1 Westlink is based on the view that diversion of the 65,000 vehicles that use the road everyday is not a realistic alternative, as all the associated routes on this corridor are already at capacity in the peak hours.”
He said the road would remain open for the duration of the building works but parts would close at weekends.
“During the contract, measures to manage traffic through the site will include the maintenance of at least two traffic lanes in each direction during the works. The contractor will also be encouraged to work during off-peak times and the existing bus lane towards the city will also be maintained,” he said.

Journalist:: Evan Short

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