The overwhelming impression left by the Government's unveiling of its €34 billion infrastructural plan is one of dismay. Dismay generated initially by the razzmatazz surrounding the unveiling – the same razzmatazz that accompanied the unveiling four years ago of the now thoroughly discredited health strategy. Dismay by the spectacle of the Government's least accomplished Minister, Martin Cullen, taking charge of this massive project – the same Minister who brought us Farmleigh, e-voting and Monica Leech public relations. Dismay caused by recollection of the massive wastage fiasco that accompanied the previous infrastructural grand design.
This Government (any government?) simply is not capable of managing projects of this scale. Remember how, on the roads programme alone, €10 billion (one third of the projected expenditure in the new plan) was thrown away? The claims now by the hapless Martin Cullen to ensure that the projects will be delivered "within time and within budget" are at once hilarious and depressing.
But there is more substantial reason to be disappointed.
The priority given again to investment in roads rather than in public transport is wrong. Not that all public transport investment is to be welcomed, indeed a further disappointing element of the plan is the nature of the proposed public transport projects.
By far the most effective, efficient and flexible form of public transport is buses. They cost far less than trains or trams, even when the bus corridors and specially designated bus roads and bridges are taken into account. They are far more flexible and can be rerouted easily to meet changing demands. And they do not cause anything like the disruption that, for instance, the construction of the Luas project in Dublin caused.
Why a vamped-up bus service, with special laneways and corridors from the airport to various parts of Dublin and beyond, is not preferable to a fixed, inflexible and massively expensive metro service into the city centre is beyond understanding. If is it thought the private sector must or should be involved, then by far the best way of involving the private sector is through buses – allow private bus operators far more latitude to operate in competition with each other and in competition with Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus.
The motorway project should have built into it a strong public transport dimension. There should be on all motorways and other major roadways dedicated bus lanes, thereby encouraging travellers to use public transport rather than private cars.
There are aspects to the plan which are welcome. The construction of a single main train station in Dublin at Spencer Dock would make a great deal of sense, although the news that the tunnel between Heuston and Connolly stations could not be used for diesel trains raises doubts about that.
The proposed Atlantic Corridor – a major road from Letterkenny to Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford, is welcome too, if it ever happens and there must be doubt about that, for it is long-fingered.
As an election gimmick it has its drawbacks. One of the gravest doubts about the competence of this Government centres on its incapacity to manage infrastructural projects. Every time it trumpets its plans for more infrastructural projects, it is likely to revive awareness of its incompetence.
There is also the factor that very many of these projects will not get underway at all. Clearly, there has been Cabinet disagreement on the plan and Brian Cowen, Minister for Finance, made clear at the unveiling that each individual project would have to get Department of Finance approval before going ahead. Which raises the question: what exactly was being unveiled? If there is not agreement to proceed with what was announced, then what was the point of the announcement?
And on the whole, that might be the most encouraging news of all. The razzmatazz was just that, nothing has been agreed as yet. The madness might yet be curtailed.