CALLS have been made for Roads Minister Danny Kennedy to clarify his position on the proposed upgrade of the A8 Larne to Belfast Road, after the Irish Government pulled the plug on millions of pounds worth of funding.
The long-awaited dualling of a 14.5 kilometre stretch of the carriageway between Coleman’s Corner and Ballyrickard Road was due to get underway next year, with an estimated completion date of 2015.
But last week, the Irish Government announced the withdrawal of the £400m funds earmarked for the A8 and the A5 Aughnacloy to Londonderry schemes in the 2011-2015 budget period.
The Northern Ireland Executive was to have match-funded the A8 and A5 projects, and it is still unclear where that £400m will now go. Under Treasury rules, the money can only be spent on capital projects and £144m of it has to be spent by the end of next year.
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson will now divvy up the money between various Departments and depending how much is set aside for road building, Mr Kennedy will have to decide how the finances could be best utilised.
But East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs has urged the Roads Minister to arrive at his decision as quickly as possible to avoid the A8 project being “left in limbo”.
He added: “There has been much media discussion about the withdrawal of Dublin’s promised £400m on the A5 Aughnacloy to Londonderry dual carriageway. But there has been hardly any comment on the implications for the plan to finish the dualling of the A8 from Bruslee to Kilwaughter, bypassing Ballynure.
“These two schemes were joined together for political expediency. With the results of the A8 public enquiry yet to be announced, there is obviously lack of certainty about whether the scheme will still go ahead at this time.
“This lack of certainty needs to be quickly cleared up in the coming weeks. It is unfair for the landowners and householders affected by the scheme, particularly those on the west of Ballynure where the bypass is planned to be left in limbo.”
Speaking to the Times, Mr Wilson said he would be making recommendations on where the extra money could be spent, based on a number of criteria.
He added: “One of the most important factors in determining where this money will be spent is whether the scheme is ready to go.
“Has all the preparation and procurement been done, is it at the stage where it can be taken to tender?
“Another key criteria is the impact it will have on the local economy. Will it help the construction industry, which has been hit hard by the recession?”
Based on this, one scheme that may happen is the dualling of the A2 Carrickfergus to Belfast Road.
The project is well advanced and a lot of the preliminary work has already been carried out, which would make it a more attractive investment.
“The A2 should be high on the list of priorities. It has already gone through the planning stages and the public enquiry,” Mr Wilson added.
When pressed on how the A8 project would factor into his recommendations, the DUP man said he would like to see it being taken forward alongside the A2.
“I have been critical of some aspects of the design of the A8 dualling, but it is one of the major European routes and I still believe it can go ahead. My preference would be that both projects receive a share of the money, and I feel that both have a strong chance of being considered.
“I will make my recommendations, but at the end of the day the decision lies with Mr Kennedy,” he said.
Alliance’s east Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson claimed the loss of Irish Government funding had effectively put the A8 dualling “on the long finger”, but he made the case that A2 project could benefit from the situation.
“It is disappointing that this funding for the A5 upgrade scheme has been withdrawn. This unfortunate news does however provide new hope as regards the possibility of the A2 being upgraded. The A2 is an extremely important route and having it upgraded would be very positive for commerce and tourism in the area.
“There are a number of road projects that the Minister must give consideration to at present and I would hope that he will re-examine the case for the upgrade of the A2 between Belfast and Carrickfergus as I believe that it would greatly benefit our economy and be a significant boost to our infrastructure,” Mr Dickson said.
While the Irish Government may have reneged on its promise to provide £400m for road schemes in the Province, it has been reported that Taoiseach Enda Kenny remains committed to the A5/A8 projects.
On Friday, the Republic announced a scaled-down funding plan for the A5/A8 schemes, agreeing to provide a total of 50 million euros (£42m). It is understood the first 25m euros will be provided for 2015 and the second in 2016.