Construction of the first phase of the single biggest roads project ever undertaken in Northern Ireland will begin in the new year, it has been announced.
A decade in the making, the A5 ‘Western Transport Corridor’ project should eventually see an unbroken stretch of dual carriageway running from Londonderry through to Aughnacloy near the Irish border, linking the north west region to the Irish N2 motorway and on to Dublin.
The Department of Infrastructure announced its intention to proceed with the project on Tuesday, following a recommendation from the Planning Appeals Commission.
It follows years of public consultations, delays, funding issues, inquiries and even legal challenges.
Work on the first phase, a stretch of road between Newbuildings on the outskirts of Londonderry and the town of Strabane in Co Tyrone that will cost £150 million to complete, will begin in early 2018, the department has said.
The news has been welcomed by both nationalist and unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, and by political figures across the border.
The Construction Employers Federation also welcomed the news, hailing the A5 project as “a scheme which is of significant strategic importance to the Northern Ireland economy”.
Foyle DUP MLA Gary Middleton said: “Ultimately the long-term goal is to improve connectivity across Northern Ireland.”
The Department of Infrastructure announced its ‘decision to proceed’ with the scheme in a statement issued on Tuesday.
The department’s Permanent Secretary Peter May said: “This decision concurs with the Planning Appeals Commission recommendation that the scheme should proceed in the wider public interest.”
He added: “Construction will start as soon as possible.”
The Irish government had originally pledged to commit some £400 million towards the overall cost of the project but, following financial difficulties in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, withdrew its offer in May, 2011.
The Dublin government later agreed, in November that year, to contribute smaller sums in a series of instalments.
The Stormont government then decided, in February 2012, to split the ambitious project into sections that would be built in phases.
The decision to proceed was held up yet again, however, in September that year when a legal challenge was lodged and the scheme was put on hold.
A series of public consultations, a revised assesment of the road scheme’s impact on the environment, a further legal challenge, and a public inquiry followed.
News that the project should finally move ahead has been warmly welcomed.
Mr Middleton said: “This is obviously a good news story for Londonderry and the north west, but also for the construction industry and for the economy in Northern Ireland generally.
“It is timely for the construction industry and will bring extra work into the area for them.”
WestTyrone SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said: “This remains one of the most critical infrastructure projects on the island.
“We know that investment is dependent on transport infrastructure, a highly skilled workforce and soft infrastructure development.”
Across the border, Donegal Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh also welcomed the news, saying: “This government has steadfastly supported the A5 financially and in every other way and today is a significant day.”
The announcement was also welcomed by the Construction Employers Federation.
The industry body’s managing director John Armstrong said: “The direct and indirect benefits will equate to hundreds of sustainable jobs over the course of the project as well as many opportunities for the main contractors’ extensive supply chain.”
The phase 1a section of the project which is due to begin in the new year will cost an estimated £150 million, the department has said, with half that money coming from the Irish government.
Mr May said: “Under the Fresh Start Agreement the Irish government has agreed to contribute £75million over three years.”
He added: “This is a strategically important project for the region and one which will benefit the economy as a whole, as well as improving journey times and road safety.”