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€132 million underspend on walking and cycling in 2021

— Minister of State said she is happy with the progress this year.

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There was a €132 million underspend on walking and cycling in 2021, according to provisional figures outlined in the Dail last Thursday.

According to the figures outlined, only €212 million was spent when €344.5 million was available. This breaks down to €185 million on active travel projects and €27 million on greenways — when €281 million was available for active travel and 63.5 million for greenways.

The figures were released by the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Hildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael) when prompted by a priority question in the Dail by Sinn Fein transport spokesperson and Meath East TD Darren O’Rourke.

Deputy O’Rourke asked for the “amount that has been spent in 2021 on active travel projects, the value of the 2021 underspend, the number of kilometres of cycle lanes, segregated and unsegregated, that were constructed in 2021, and if she has considered designating one agency to spearhead the delivery of cycling and walking infrastructure.”

The available funding also falls €15 million short of the Government’s promised €360 million per year for walking and cycling. The figures are for 2021, the first full year of the current Government.

Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton reconfirmed the Government commitment of spending €360 million “in cross-Government funding” on walking and cycling per annum over the lifetime of the Government.

1,000km of “improved walking and cycling infrastructure by 2025, as well as additional investment in greenways,” was planned she said, but the Minister of State did not provide a figure for the number of kilometres of segregated and unsegregated cycle routes that were built in 2021, but indicated that such data will be provided later.

She said: “The total expenditure delivered on active travel through my Department in 2020 was €108 million, with €8.3 million also spent on greenways. This year, we have seen a significant increase in delivery and expenditure on active travel infrastructure, with the provisional spend for 2021 at €185 million. This is in addition to approximately €27 million spent on greenways in 2021.”

She said there was €281 million available for active travel projects in the greater Dublin area, regional cities and rural areas.

“Therefore, overall, there has been a large increase in the delivery and expenditure on active travel between 2020 and 2021, although it is also true there has been a significant underspend compared with available funds,” said Minister of State Naughton.

The National Transport Authority (NTA) is spearheading the delivery of cycling and walking infrastructure, with the local authorities, she said.

“Factors constraining delivery of active travel infrastructure this year included the impact of Covid restrictions, planning issues and staffing constraints. However, the larger budgets and projects are now bedding in, new staff are being recruited by the local authorities, and the situation is improving. We expect a much higher drawdown on available funds next year and increased delivery,” she said.

The Minister of State said that the NTA is working with local authorities to “ensure effective and efficient delivery of active travel funding”. She said that it is anticipated that approximately €290 million will be available next year, and €60 million was announced for greenways last week,

She said: “I am happy that 2021 has been a year of very significant delivery on cycling and walking infrastructure despite Covid and other challenges. It is apparent all around the country that progress is being made.”

Deputy O’Rourke said: “I am conscious that last week’s annual report by the Climate Change Advisory Council, CCAC, stated there is a significant discrepancy between the ambition and policy and the implementation. That is what I see in regard to cycling and walking infrastructure. It is very concerning because communities want to see this infrastructure delivered.”

He asked what is the position in terms of staffing, given the Minister of State mentioned that staffing was an issue.

Minister of State, Hildegarde Naughton said: “The reason for the underspend is that it was the first year and staffing was an issue… As per the quarter 3 report from the NTA supplied to my Department, 92 new positions have been filled across local authorities out of a total of about 250 allowed. This includes staff in local authorities outside of the Greater Dublin Area and regional cities, where, until this year, there were no NTA-funded active travel staff in place.”

An updated report is due in a matter of weeks and a significant increase in the number of positions filled is expected, she said.

She said: “There will be a lot of pressure on local authorities next year. Now that they have increased resources in-house, we expect them to be able to roll out these active travel projects across the country. I will get the Deputy the exact figures in regard to his earlier question and I will provide them to him separately.”

Deputy O’Rourke said: “I want to raise the point of the lead agency. The Minister of State referred to the NTA. To go back to the CCAC’s annual report and that implementation gap, the policy and ambition are not translating into action. One of the pieces that came through very strongly in that regard was the fractured nature of existing service delivery and project implementation.”

He said: “I see the annex of actions for the Climate Plan as they relate to transport, and I see the Department of Transport, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the County and City Management Association, CCMA, local authorities and other relevant stakeholders. To me, that seems a business as usual approach and there is no lead agency focused on the delivery of these projects.”

Minister of State, Hildegarde Naughton said one of the problems was that work on greenways could not continue over the level 5 restrictions — although this did not apply to other walking and cycling projects.

She added: “All local authorities spent much of this year recruiting new staff after that formal authorisation was given to them in March to recruit NTA-funded staff. The NTA will be driving that. Obviously, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I have allocated a lot of funding for active travel throughout the country. It is imperative that agencies working with local authorities and the local authorities, which will be over the roll-out of many of these projects, prioritise these projects over the next 12 months. Now that the allocation of resources is there, the excuses are not there for any kind of slowdown or delays for many of these projects to be rolled out.”

READ: The full debate on Kildarestreet.com

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