York Street Interchange: Politicians back review of project

By Mark Devenport
BBC News NI Political Editor

image captionThe scheme is designed to ease congestion at the junctions of Belfast's M1, M2 and M3 with a new bridge and underpass

Sinn Féin and SDLP politicians have backed a review of the high-profile York Street Interchange road project.

They have done so in the light of the potential reduction in commuter traffic in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

The project is intended to address a major traffic bottleneck to the north of Belfast city centre.

It would replace the existing traffic light-controlled junctions at York Street with direct links between the Westlink, M2 and M3.

Those are the three busiest roads in Northern Ireland.

It is also planned to separate through traffic from local motorists by constructing underpasses below the existing road and rail bridges, and underneath a new bridge at York Street.

Securing funding for the scheme was part of the DUP's confidence and supply agreement with former Prime Minister Theresa May.

However, work on the project has been held up due to a successful legal challenge to the tendering process.

The potential cost of the scheme has been estimated at between £120m and £165m.

Campaigners in favour of regenerating the Sailortown area of north Belfast argue the design of the York Street interchange scheme is misconceived, outdated and prioritises cars over people.

image captionJohn Finucane said the York Street interchange runs counter to the council's agenda to get more people living in the city

On BBC Northern Ireland's Inside Politics Q&A podcast, they asked a panel of north Belfast politicians if they would support a review of the scheme, with the intention of considering another way forward which would make the area more attractive for walking and living.

North Belfast MP John Finucane, of Sinn Féin, told the podcast he believes the York Street interchange runs counter to Belfast City Council's agenda to get more people living in the city and make it more connected.

Mr Finucane agreed the scheme should be looked at again, arguing that with more imagination the need for traffic to enter Belfast from the north can be accommodated, but not at the expense of communities like Sailortown and its proud history.

SDLP councillor Carl Whyte said the decisions regarding York Street dated back 30 years to when a vibrant community was ripped apart by building a motorway through a densely populated urban area.

Mr Whyte pointed out that his party colleague, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, had reported a 60-70% drop in traffic as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

He said Northern Ireland's reconstruction plan could not just say "let's go back to full throttle traffic" and that instead people needed to be encouraged to use cycle lanes or public transport and the Glider service should be extended into north Belfast.

He said the York Street project should be reconsidered as the coronavirus pandemic had thrown "everything up in the air".

'Huge issues of connectivity'

However the DUP's North Belfast MLA William Humphrey stressed the York Street interchange "in whatever form it comes" was "hugely important, not just for north Belfast, but also for Northern Ireland PLC".

Mr Humphrey said the bottleneck on the Westlink moving both ways needed to be addressed for the sake of industry and commerce.

The DUP assembly member told Inside Politics Q&A there were "huge issues of connectivity for people getting to the ports and airports, and it's also important for our tourism infrastructure connecting the west of Northern Ireland to the transportation hub in Belfast".

Mr Humphrey said the infrastructure minister and the executive have to make big decisions regarding the future of the project.

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