September 2, 2007

Plans stuck in a tunnel

Posted in Celtic Tiger · 7 comments ·

The grossly under-used Dublin Port Tunnel is typical of our entire infrastructure fiasco.

Driving through an eerily empty Port Tunnel the other day, I began to ask myself, why did we build it? It is practically empty all the time.

This is the biggest infrastructural project the State has ever undertaken. It has a capacity of 55,000 cars per day, but recent figures suggest that only 12,000 a week – not a day – are using it.

This means that the Port Tunnel is working at 2 per cent capacity. Granted it gets the trucks out of the city, but at nearly three quarter of a billion euro, you’d expect a bit more.

Obviously the pricing is all wrong. There must be a price at which the trucks are happy and the drivers of Dublin can use a tunnel that their taxes paid for. As things stand, we have a piece of engineering which no one uses.

So we pay through the nose for a huge piece of infrastructure that the state prices out of the market. The expression ‘‘build it and they will come’’ is familiar enough, but ‘‘build it and turn ’em away’’ is a new one to me.

Yet the Port Tunnel fiasco simply highlights the entire road building mess in our country. If you are interested in savouring the rivalry ahead of the All Ireland football final, a trip to the Cork/Kerry border is well worth it.

You will also notice how much better the roads are in south Kerry than West Cork. You move from old asphalt to new tar. If you don’t believe me, drive from Kenmare to Castletownbere. The road in Kerry is flat and smooth. As soon as you cross the county line, the same road changes surface.

The reason for this is simple Strokeonomics. It is economics Irish style, when the local government and the local politicians join forces to build infrastructure based on electoral boundaries rather than engineering logic. What other country has roads determined by county boundaries?

The all-Ireland approach to economics prevails. In the all-Ireland economics, the county boundary is sacrosanct. What generates great sport generates bad economics, as it cultivates a parochial partisanship that is necessary for the Stroke.

How hard is it to build a proper road? In other countries, Portugal being a good example, the road network has been upgraded substantially in the past ten years. But that would be too simple.

Here, with the exception of the Dublin-to-Belfast route which is the infrastructural equivalent of Ireland’s Call – constructed to be nice to Protestants – everything is a shambles. So much so that Irish people still, despite being the second wealthiest race in the world on paper, marvel at a dual carriageway that would be standard in Mexico.

We talk about the ‘‘great stretch of road’’. What exactly does this expression tell you about our expectations? This brings us to the National Development Plan or, as it’s known in some quarters, Transport 2021.Only a recovering socialist could have come up with the title Transport 2021. It has all the ceremony of a superannuated five year plan.

The beauty is, like all good socialist targets – apart from the gulag – it’s sufficiently far ahead into the future that the present lot will not be around to answer for it. The term ‘transport’ is so ludicrously vague as to be meaningless. But it sounds good.

Most of us think that Ireland has changed. Gombeen Ireland can’t exist still, surely? Take a deep breath. Are you sitting comfortably because, in the past few years the ESRI published two comprehensive reports on how much we are spending, where and why (ESRI Policy Research Papers No 50 and 59

Up until then, nobody knew what was going on. The government’s spin-doctors did their best to quash this report and on reading it, I’m not surprised they didn’t try to burn it.

A picture of total chaos emerges, where there is hardly any overall strategy. No one knows why things are being built and there is absolutely no framework. Roads are planned, like a proposed motorway to Waterford, based on evidence that traffic is not once, or three times, but ten times below the capacity necessary to justify such spending. But then again the minister was from Waterford and he had to deliver.

But it gets worse, because the report reveals that no single road project that has been proposed by local councils and local politicians has been turned down in six years.

How can you pretend to have an assessment board if it doesn’t assess anything? Like the Port Tunnel, no one is assessing value for money. It is calamitous.

The ERSI found that Ireland suffered ‘‘abnormal delays’’ on all public infrastructure projects. That much we knew, but much more worrying is the fact that there is no overall model anywhere that links up all the bits of infrastructure. Roads are sanctioned by the local vested interests and that’s it.

But it gets worse. There is no systematic plan for public transport either. The ESRI study says clearly that one knows what to prioritise. The Strokeonomics approach is ‘‘we have the money, let’s just spend the stuff before it runs out’’. It’s a ‘‘jobs for the boys’’ bonanza and the idea is to grab what’s going.

According to the ESRI, all the ‘‘studies (for transport) have been prepared by different authors, for different organisations using different assumptions’’. There is ‘‘no framework for analysis’’ and when referring to the Metro, new Luas and Dublin Bus plans for the future, the state ‘‘does not appear to have analysed how the different elements of the transport network they are considering would interact with each other’’.

Ask yourself the question, cui bono – who benefits? Let’s leave it at one last figure, before we get too depressed. In the period of this government from 1996 to 2006, inflation rose by 30 per cent, but the price of road construction went up by 70 per cent. The 40 per cent difference was stroked away, trousered by insiders and paid for by you, the eejit. On the outside – the taxpayer.

Even when it’s totally obvious that Strokeonomics is ripping us off, the insiders just put their heads down brazenly, lying and pretending to forget. We carry on as if it was the most normal thing in the world – or worse still, concluding there is nothing that can be done.

Strokeonomics enfeebles all of us because the tax money of the central government is used to prop up the ambitions of the little emperors who masquerade as politicians in Ireland.

  1. Dónall Garvin

    I was talking about this sort of problem with my family the other day – mainly about houses (the Irish Obsession).
    Anyway – you see the same disjointed thinking with these new developments of houses.
    You have a lack of facilities (e.g. creche, schools, green spaces and the like) because the builders only build houses.

    The problem is political – there needs to be strong, accountable leadership in the Irish Government who have a vision for making some of the real changes that the country needs.

    I have just come back from Latvia and the Ukraine and you see there that they manage to get big infrastructure projects up and going, despite the much lower levels of wealth.

    One fundamental criticism of poorly run organisations that I have is that simple changes are impossible to be made quickly.
    You are probably not the only one to have noticed that the port tunnel is running undercapacity due the high cost.
    But the “authorities” are incapable of making a decision for themselves.

    Good article David – keep ‘em up.

  2. Absolutely spot on. But apart from ripping us off financially and leaving us with substandard infrastructure, Strokenomics has two other negative side-effects.

    The first is that it reinforces the belief that governments do everything badly and therefore they ought to be removed from the picture altogether. This unbalances the very real debate about which services a government might provide more equitably (if done properly) than does the market (which has well acknowledged failures). The result is that Irish people see the strokenomics and think, yes, the market cannot be worse than this, so let’s go with the flow of removing government from the provision of as many services as we can. Lost is the nuance that perhaps an accountable, well run government might do better than the merkat at providing some services. For example, government intervention in education and health is still very much regarded as a essential to keeping them broad based – which benefits all of society in the long run.

    The second problem with strokenomics is that it kills off interest in politics at a time when it is at an all-time low. But this too is bad for everyone because it means the political system is less vigorous, less responsive, less diverse. In some ways, strokenomics is a selt-reinforcing state. The more clientelist and ineffective the government behaves, the more people get turned off. The lower people’s expectations and the more people get turned off. Therefore the pressure to deliver and to be accountable is diminshed – which boosts the opportunity for strokenomics.

    It’s not a pretty picture, and unfortunately there is not a shred of evidence that it is going to change any time soon.

  3. Garry

    I think the overall infrastructure shambles is as much to do with us as a nation as anything else…. After all, we re-elect governments we arent happy with, we dont complain in restaurants etc…. Combine that with the lack of accountability in the public service and its scary … clients who dont complain, employers who dont care and workers who get paid either way….

    as regards evidence that its not going to change any time soon, its changing … slowly… Aer Lingus’s decision on Shannon … the HSE’s system of extra consultants for certain hospitals who have met targets… is evidence things are slowly getting better

    The danger of trying to have a “grand overall strategy” and to force more accountability usually means more time and money is spent on consultants devising measurement frameworks and consultants devising means around these frameworks to show targets have been met….
    Eg. we have many many regulators in ireland who are of questionable value. Take Comreg. Eircom have jacked up line rental to ensure they compete with newer arrivals, its not the regulator but the arrival of newer technologies like mobile broadband that has them worried…

    I believe fresh thinking is required rather than appointing more regulators to have endless meetings with each other…. real simple targets with immediate payback if they arent met….
    1/ if you are at a motorway toll booth and the queue of cars are backed up to point X, you can legally go through free…. In this case the government and toll company suffer if they screw up and dont install efficent systems for collecting tolls. There is an ongoing penalty for non performance or a incentive for delivering real improvement.
    2/ if you have been diagnosed at a certain date and have been put on a queue for an operation. If the operation hasnt started within a target date, you get X euros for every week your treatment is delayed. The amount depends on the category of the illness… But it comes from the insurer (private patient) or hospital’s budget (public patient).
    3/ Or if you pay your car tax, you should be able to get the disc back within x working days or a discount applies. Or if you apply for a driving test, the more the test is delayed, the more compensation you get, the amount should be defined but of a scale to compensate for the increased instrance cost…

    … simple achievable targets but because they have a financial impact will be enforced by the public… and because they are enforced by the public, that organisation will fix problems as they arise. After all, the government introduced on the spot fines for civic offences such as littering, parking etc, surely they can introduce on the spot compensation for failing to meet minimum standards for public services?

  4. MB

    Ireland’s political system is infantile and not really befitting the complexities of the 21st century and globalisation. It is depressing to see the same old pre-Celtic Tiger faces get voted in every few years. Many of them have inherited seats from their fathers (Enda Kenny) or are part of a tight-knit political clan that works for its members only (Bertie Ahern). Irish politics has become sick and isn’t fit to deal with the complexities of the economy and society anymore.

    It begs the question whether a country can ever recover when its political system has reached such a low point. Ireland was devastated by war, famine, emigration, poverty (and anything else you care to mention) for 150 years and then slowly started to emerge from that into prosperity. Our politics hasn’t changed at all to keep pace with the economic changes, however, and it’s still mainly based on “great man” mythologies (O’Connell, Parnell, Collins / DeValera, Haughey) and clannish ties. Many Irish politicians have been in power for a generation or more (30 years) or are children of “political families”. It’s parochial and it’s embarrassing for Ireland in this day and age. We need an injection of fresh talent and new faces with new ideas but where to get them from when so many young people are stranded in faceless estates and commuter towns and aren’t being given the opportunity to build the community ties that Irish politics is built on?

    It’s a vicious circle too as the more parochial politics becomes relative to the rest of Irish life, the more off-putting it will seem so the same old clans will retain control.

  5. Tomtaltach said,

    on September 4th, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    The second problem with strokenomics is that it kills off interest in politics at a time when it is at an all-time low.


    Turnout in the 2007 was actually quite high at 67%. Irish people are very much interested in politics, they were just too scared to risk a change of government.

  6. Carrigaline,

    Fair point about turnout. Perhaps I should have said confidence in politics .ie. confidence that our politcal system can deliver. I honestly believe that people recognise that the system is broken and that they have low expectations as a result.

  7. andrew

    Garry got it right above. Until Irish people actually DO SOMETHING to influence change, there is no incentive for corrupt politicians, rude waiters, or lazy civil servants to change their behaviour. service in restaurants here is deplorable given the prices charged, but nobody ever complains, hence, the servers maintain their inept ways.

    it’s the same way with the politicians. That a man who admits to accepting tens of thousands of pounds in cash from ‘friends’ is re-elected is a sure sign of a populace who are either too lazy or too stupid to recognise the warning signals or are too afraid of any change at all.

    Ireland, your boom is over; now you have to show the world you can do things besides sell houses to each other and think it is an economy.

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