Ireland's Transport Minister: We Built It, They Didn't Come

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Cork Airport in 2011 (photo by tomylees via flickr)

Ireland's Transport Minister spoke candidly Thursday about how the recent financial crisis had hobbled his country -- and forced it to be a lot more wary of big investment in transportation projects.

Leo Varadkar said Ireland will be doing very little in the way of new road and rail projects, choosing instead to maintain what they have, expand relatively low-cost bicycle networks, and make public transportation customers happier through wi-fi and transit apps.

"We've lost roughly 20% of our GDP. Unemployment has gone from maybe 3 percent to 14 percent, and while we ran very big budget surpluses in the past we've now have a big deficit," he said. "And that really has made transport investment very difficult."

Ireland's good financial times ground to a halt in 2008. One former government minister has described the country's boom times like this: “You could say the government was drunk on the revenue that was coming from all the construction taxes.”

Varadkar said that although the economic situation was stabilizing, the country's huge debts have forced the country to redefine how it thinks about transportation projects.

"What we had during our boom period, between 2001 to 2008, was huge investment in transport," he said. "There was a whole new motorway network, which has transformed the country. New airport terminals, we reopened some closed railways. And most of that investment was worth doing. But a lot of it actually wasn't. At the time, we were subscribers as a country to this view -- I'm not sure if you've seen the Kevin Costner film."

He said Ireland had been a proponent of 'if you build it, they will come.' "And we found with a lot of our transport network well, they didn't come. And we now have railways that run at a massive loss and half-empty airport terminals."

So that was then -- and this is now. "I think what we're going to be from now on is a lot smarter, a lot more considered about our investment. The first thing absolutely is to maintain what we have. Secondly, is ... a sort of seamless and smart investment in transport. So while we're only building a few new roads and linking up a few railways, what we're doing a lot of is very low cost, very smart and very efficient investment.

"So we've brought in an Oyster card in Dublin, our Leap card, putting wi-fi in on all the buses and trains, that improves people's experience of public transport. We have intelligent information systems now on our on motorways, so there's a lot of signs telling people what's happening with traffic and what's ahead." And he said the bus systems provide real time bus information, both via signage, apps and texting.

"We're putting a lot into cycle networks as well, which can be very efficient and then a lot in the last mile. So say, for example, we're investing in the train stations. At a relatively low cost we're putting into the train stations hubs so that the bus can actually come into the train station and drop people off. We're putting in cycle ways and cycle parking so that more people can cycle to the train station.

"And what we're trying to do, particularly in rural areas, is to create transport hubs. We we bring together the bus station, the train station, things that seem logical but often aren't the case. And finally we're doing some regulatory reforms: we're opening up our railways to competition for people who may wish to provide service on our railways. And we're exploring the idea of going down the route that other cities have gone down, particularly in our major cities, of franchising out the bus services."

"So really what we're trying to do is maintain what we have first of all, secondly, improve what we have and do those low-cost improvements that bring about seamlessness and improve the passenger's experience of transport, public transport in particular. And then and only then are we doing major new projects, and that of course is very limited by the financial situation."