09 March 2008

Who is responsible for Ireland's Infrastructure?

A new statement on the delivery dates of Irish transport infrastructure indicates that several of the targets for 2008 will be missed. The information can be found in the Department of Transport's second annual progress report on the implementation of the government's multi-billion investment programme.

Eleven major projects have been identified as being "behind schedule", including the Portlaoise train depot, which was supposed to be completed in 2007, but will - hopefully - be finished this year. Construction of the Cork commuter rail service to Midleton will be completed in 2009 rather than 2008, and in Dublin three Luas projects will also be delayed.

Transport Minister Noel Dempsey (photo) said the dates had "always been indicative" and all but one of the plan's numerous projects would be completed within the designated timeframe of 2015. But the minister did not make an attempt to explain the fact that almost nothing is finished on time in Ireland, and never for the expected or estimated price.

What's the Problem?

Is it just simply massive incompetence, combined with laziness and a "don't care" attitude? Or is there a subtle sy
stem of contractors, sub-contractors and even further sub-sub-contractors in place that syphens off money and resources from every project they are involved with? Hard to say, and certainly worth some investigation. But like most members of the govenment, the Minister for Transport is not really bothered by those delays. As long as his own pay-check (of about € 20,000 a month) arrives on time, all is well.

Noel Dempsey pointed out that in 2007 there was 82% more money spent on public transport projects than the previous year. And "Transport 21", the government's well publicised strategy plan, "is delivering tangible benefits to commuters" he said, pointing out that hourly return services on the Cork - Dublin rail route were introduced, as well as new intercity rail cars on the Sligo line. Phase one of the Western Rail Corridor had started, new buses had been delivered in Dublin, and eleven national road projects had been completed while construction started on another ten.

Well, that's all very nice and good. But the questions not asked by journalists - and therefore not answered by ministers - are:
  1. Do we get value for money?
  2. Do we get good quality projects and products?
  3. And if not, who is to blame?
We are told that so much more money is spent. Well, 82% is a large number. But how much is that in money? And 82% on top of how much?
Why are we always given percentages, but very rarely the proper sums? Is the money we - the taxpayers - invest via the government in all those projects spent well?

No one seems responsible
It is quite strange that literally everything is so much more expensive in Ireland - from simple daily food to huge infrastructure programmes. Roads, railways and other infrastructure projects are built all the time in every country, but most of them are managed very well and deliver high quality on time and on budget. Not so in Ireland. Why? And who is responsible?

Apparently no one, as the minister passes the buck to the various state agencies - like the now often mentioned National Road Authority (NRA) - who in turn pass it further down to the private contractors they use. At the end of the day the buck stops with some nameless Polish or Lithuanian construction worker who does neither speak English nor has any idea of the bigger picture. All he cares for is to earn more money than he would get in his own country, and send a good bit of it back home while living a Spartan life here. This is no way to run anything, not any project, and certainly not the country!

A good example how not to do it is the new Dublin Port Tunnel. It took longer than planned to build, and cost a lot more than projected. And now, that it is finished, it doesn't work properly. Serious problems with the tunnel's fans were revealed recently by the RTÉ Prime Time programme and Fine Gael's Fergus O'Dowd said that equipment failures in the tunnel were unacceptable and were damaging public confidence. Quite right!

In many other countries they have tunnels for decades, and even centuries. They all are safe and work perfectly. So why can't Ireland do it? And again - who is responsible?
Minister Dempsey agrees that the situation at the tunnel is "unacceptable", but is it his problem? Oh no! He says it is "a matter between the contractor and the NRA", which is "taking legal action to ensure the equipment is properly repaired".

This is beyond a bad joke! Is he the Minister for Transport or not? And what good does it do to the many drivers in Dublin, hampered by a faulty or even closed tunnel, when the NRA and some un-named contractor battle the matter out in the Courts? Legal cases usually takes ages, and the main beneficiaries are the lawyers who charge massive fees for their learned services.

Noel Dempsey is trying to calm the waves by saying that he is "confident the NRA is doing all in its power to resolve issues with equipment in the Dublin Port Tunnel". But what are the powers of the NRA? Do they really have enough authority, as their name would suggest? And - first of all - what about the minister's own authority? Why is he not using it to solve the problem quickly? What's the point of having a Minister for Transport if all his responsibilities are delegated away to unelected and unaccountable bodies and agencies?

If Mr. Dempsey, who has not exactly covered himself with glory in the departments he headed previously, wants to be taken for serious (and not for a spineless whimp), it is time for him to step up to the plate, take responsibility for the matters of his department and actually do the job he is very well paid for.

The Emerald Islander

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