The Athy Relief Road controversy has raised it’s head yet again. Last week the Traffic Management Consultants Acer McCarthy who were employed by Kildare County Council in 1996 to reinvestigate the Inner Relief Road proposals advised the Urban District Council members of the results of the public consultation process which was carried out over a six week period at the end of last year.
The history of the proposed relief road makes interesting reading. In 1975 Athy Urban District Council commissioned a traffic study of the town. A report was presented to the Urban Council in December 1975 in which the consultants recommended two new alternative routes to relieve traffic congestion in Athy. Both an Inner Relief Road and an Outer Relief Road were approved by the then Council and were subsequently incorporated into the towns development plan. Successive Urban Councils maintained the line of the Outer Relief Road free of development, a situation which continues to this day.
Over the years the membership of the Urban Council has changed and with it the unanimous majority which once favoured the building of an Inner Relief Road through Athy. Opposition to the proposed roadway which was to cut through the back square with a new bridge behind the Courthouse was first raised over ten years ago when a newly elected Councillor questioned the wisdom of the Council’s plans. Since then an increasing minority of the Council has steadfastly opposed the Inner Relief Road proposal and their opposition has galvanised into action the local people who up to then were largely unaware of what was proposed.
It was clear from an early stage that the officials of Kildare County Council favoured the Inner Relief Road and when rumblings of discontent were voiced in the Urban District Council chamber some ten years ago moves were speedily made to transfer responsibility for the planning of the roadway from Athy Urban District Council to Kildare County Council. This served for a while to put a cap on criticism of the Inner Relief Road plans.
Subsequent widespread opposition to the perceived destruction of the fabric of the town centre which would result from the building of the Inner Relief Road prompted the officials of Kildare County Council to soften their initial approach to the project. The Inner Relief Road which would run parallel to Leinster Street and Duke Street, exiting at Blanchfields at one end and at Canal Side at the other was originally designed to be a roadway for vehicular traffic only bounded on both sides by high walls. No development was to be allowed along the route of the road, a position which however was subsequently changed, obviously in an attempt to win over local support for the Inner Relief Road. Thereafter the project was to be offered to the townspeople as a new street, with development potential for shops and houses. Unquestionably many people were won over by this new approach and indeed many business people felt that the commercial future of the town was guaranteed by an Inner Relief Road Project which offered opportunities for further commercial development.
Fast forward then to last weeks meeting when Acer McCarthy presented for the second time in nine months it’s proposals for a traffic strategy for Athy. Surprise, surprise the traffic consultants while favouring the Inner Relief Road do not recommend that the new road be used in conjunction with Leinster Street and Duke Street as a one-way system. To do so would in their words lead to “speeding and an increased risk of road traffic accidents”. Instead, Acer McCarthy would make the Inner Relief Road a two-way system with shopping and commercial activity confined to the existing Leinster Street and Duke Street. No development would be allowed on the Inner Relief Road which is planned to facilitate the movement of upwards of ten thousand vehicles a day.
The consultants’ suggestion regarding the pedestrianisation of Duke Street and Leinster Street has been well publicised and were reviewed as part of the public consultation process at the end of last year. Strangely enough the consultants have not changed their initial proposals one iota following the consultations with the public of Athy. A majority of the locals who made their views known to the consultants opposed the Inner Relief Road while others objected to the pedestrianisation of Duke Street and Leinster Street. Neither set of views was taken on board by the consultants and so what we are now left with is an Inner Relief Road carrying two-way traffic with Leinster Street and Duke Street closed to vehicular traffic. Clearly the public consultation process has been a public relations exercise only, disclosing no evidence of any attempt to take account of the views of the local people.
It is also clear that the officials of Kildare County Council are insistent that the towns’ traffic problems can best be solved by an Inner Relief Road rather than an Outer Relief Road. Much emphasis has been placed on the one day or was it a two day traffic count carried out in 1997 by Acer McCarthy and which rather strangely showed a dramatic fall in the number of vehicles passing through Athy compared to the numbers doing so in 1975. This was sufficient to satisfy the consultants and of course the officials of Kildare County Council that an Inner Relief Road was necessary to facilitate the movement of local traffic within the town. They argue that even if an Outer Relief Road was constructed it would not significantly reduce traffic congestion in the town since as they claim so little of that traffic was passing through Athy. I have to express my doubts about the validity of the claim that vehicles passing through Athy contribute so little to traffic congestion in the town. If we are to believe that the congestion is caused by local vehicles is there not merit in the proposal to develop circulating roads at the rear of Leinster Street and Duke Street without any interconnecting new bridge across the Barrow? This would help maintain the integrity of the open squares at the centre of the town and would offer an environmentally better solution than the proposed Inner Relief Road.
The issue now boils down to a contest between County Council officials and the people they serve. Whose views are to have precedence? Will the decision as to the future development of the town of Athy be assumed by officials who do not live in our town and whose decisions are determined less by social and environmental factors than by economic factors or what the officials grandiosely refer to as cost benefit analysis.
Oh, one other little carrot is about to be dangled before you in an effort to get your support for the Inner Relief Road. Kildare County Council will carry out an Environmental Impact Study to assess the effect of an Inner Relief Road on the town. Strangely such a study was previously refused by Kildare County Council and indeed those members of Athy Urban District Council who support the Inner Relief Road recently voted down a motion to have such a study carried out.
It is time to give the town back to the people and to try to develop the town in a way which makes it an attractive place in which to work, to live and to spend our leisure hours. We cannot do that if we fail to grasp the opportunity to find an environmentally friendly solution to the present traffic congestion in Athy. The proposed Inner Relief Road will be destructive of many of the important elements of the towns layout. The Outer Relief Road on the other hand coupled with the suggested circulating roads on either side of the river Barrow afford an ideal opportunity for marrying the future development potential of the town with the preservation and protection of the fabric of the town.