M2/M3 to A12 Westlink link, York Street Junction, Belfast

 

Status
Construction scheme (future)
Where
To construct direct free-flowing links between the Westlink and the M2 and the Westlink M3 at the York Street junction in Belfast via a series of underpasses.
Total Length
n/a
Dates

First proposed as part of the Belfast Urban Motorway in 1967

This incarnation first proposed - July 2006

Consultants appointed -  around Dec 2007

Plan given go-ahead - Apr 2008

Public exhibition held - 1 and 2 Jun 2011

Preferred option announced - 6 Dec 2012

Ground investigations contract began - 21 Jan 2013

Environmental Statement and associated documents published - 28 Jan 2015
Gateway 2 approval given (ie, OK to go out to tender) - 14 May 2015

Public inquiry began - 10 November 2015

Tender process commenced - 22 November 2015

Tender process revealed to be "on hold" - October 2016
Construction date unknown (as of Oct 2016) (changed from "late 2017" as of Mar 2016; "early 2018" as of Oct 2014; changed from "2014-18" as of Nov 2008)
Construction to last three years (as of Jan 2015)

Cost

£130m as of Oct 2016

Qualifies for "up to 40%" EU funding
(changed from £125m - £165m as of Jan 2015; £100m - £135m as of Dec 2012; £72m - £100m depending on option chosen as of Jun 2011; "£50m" as of Nov 2007)

Photos
See below.
See Also

Official web site on scheme - TransportNI

General area map - Google Maps

M2 on this site

M3 on this site

Westlink on this site

Westlink upgrade on this site

Belfast Urban Motorway history - on this site

Click here to jump straight down to updates for this scheme.

Now that both the M1/Westlink and M2 upgrades are completed, the last remaining at-grade junction on the Belfast motorway network is the York Street junction where the M2 meets the M3 and A12 Westlink. Freeflow links already exist between the M2 and M3, but traffic wishing to go between the M2 and A12 and the M3 and A12 must use the traffic light junction at York Street. The upgrades to these three roads have served to highlight this as the final missing link in the jigsaw with queues regularly stretching beyond Fortwilliam and Grosvenor Road on a typical working day.

These are the three busiest roads in Northern Ireland (although, contrary to popular impression, the Westlink is actually the least busy of the three with the M2 being the busiest). This junction is therefore the busiest junction in Northern Ireland, catering for around 100,000 vehicles per day, yet it currently relies on a series of traffic signals. This is obviously not a good situation.

The current plan, as of December 2012, is to completely grade separate all movements between the Westlink and M2, and Westlink and M3 (M2 to M3 movements are already free flowing). This will be achieved by constructing the four links mainly below ground level. The graphic below shows the proposed arrangement. This graphic is lifted from a DRD leaflet which you can see in full resolution here. A more detailed plan of the proposed layout is available at this link.
There are a few less-obvious points worth highlighting to drivers about this design:
  • The short stretch between Clifton Street and York Street will become a weaving section, ie an onslip joins and shortly afterwards leaves again as an offslip. This is similar to the M3 Lagan Bridge arrangement, except that the sliproads will be just one lane each. It will be interesting to see how well this performs.
  • There will no longer be access to the local road network at this junction when coming from the M2. People wishing to drive into the city centre from the M2 will have to leave at the existing junction at Duncrue Street instead and drive down Corporation Street. 
  • The link carrying traffic from the M3 to Westlink will by only one lane wide, as opposed to the current two-widening-to-three arrangement. This has to be the case due to the restrictions of the Westlink itself, but will be interesting to see how this works in practice.
  • There will be a significant reduction of traffic on the surface streets.

Historical Background

When the public inquiry that led to the construction of the Westlink was concluded in the late 1970s, it was decided to construct the Westlink to York Street, and to later build the M3 but that the junction between the two would be at ground level with traffic lights. The adjacent railway viaduct seemed to rule out an easy grade separation, but Roads Service have since changed their view and decided to explore such a scheme. The scheme was therefore officially proposed in the document "Expanding the Strategic Road Improvement Programme" released for consultation in July 2006. This document envisaged an extra £400m for roads in the period to 2015. The plans are very reminiscent of the original 1960s plans for a 3-way motorway junction here (see below).

Between 2011 and 2012 Roads Service were considering four different options to link the three roads together. Two of these were fully freeflow, and two required traffic lights on one of the links (see table below). The various options each had different, but equally important implications for the local road network, especially access to and from the city centre, to and from the Port of Belfast and in some cases access to and from Clifton Street. The plans and maps were outlined in a leaflet published in June 2011, accessible here. The table below outlines the key points of the four options that were under consideration. In December 2012, Option C was selected.

  Option A Option B Option C Option D
Westlink to M2 Freeflow, underpass Freeflow, underpass Freeflow, underpass Freeflow, overbridge
M2 to Westlink Freeflow, underpass, 40mph limit likely Freeflow, overbridge, 50mph limit likely Freeflow, underpass, 40mph limit likely Freeflow, overbridge, 50mph limit likely
Westlink to M3 Freeflow, underpass Freeflow, underpass Freeflow, underpass Via street level traffic signals
M3 to Westlink Via street level traffic signals Freeflow, under York Street Freeflow, under York Street Freeflow, over York Street
Effect on Clifton Street junction As existing As existing As existing M2-bound onslip closed. Other three as existing.
Access from Belfast Port to Westlink Via Corporation Street Via Duncrue Street Via Corporation Street Via Duncrue Street
Other notes   Overbridge ca. 18 metres above ground level.   Overbridge ca. 18 metres above ground level.
Estimated cost £72m £100m £98m £95m

Progress

13 Apr 2017: In my previous update I said that a contractor had been appointed but not publicly announced. No announcement ever came. It has since emerged that the reason for this is that one of the unsuccessful contractors has launched a legal challenge to the appointment. Nothing more has been said publicly, but it seems that it comes down to the way the tenders were assessed, in particular the relative weight given to cost versus prior experience of similar schemes. The legal challenge looks likely to delay this scheme by about nine months, which sounds bad, but in practice is likely to be a moot point since the scheme has no funding allocation (for construction) anyway, nor do we have a functioning Executive that could allocate such funding. So at this point the earliest possible start date for the scheme – assuming that funding miraculously appears out of the ether – would be early 2018. But my pragmatic side is saying that even this is optimistic, with funding likely to remain focused on the A5 and A6 for the foreseeable future.

26 Feb 2017: The legal order required to give DFI permission to build this scheme was published on 24 January, to come into operation on 7 March. You can read it here (it may help if you're having difficulty sleeping!). Building a new trunk road involves a number of legal orders, so this is just one of the legal steps required to make it happen. But it does suggest active work. The scheme has been out to tender since November 2015, but the grapevine is suggesting that a contractor has recently been appointed for design and construction. Nothing has been said publicly, however, so we'll have to await the public announcement before we can say any more. What this does, at least, suggest is that the tendering process is no longer "on hold" as was the case last autumn. The big unknown is still money - there is currently a need, a design, a strong will and perhaps a contractor... but insufficient money. The outcome of the Assembly election this week will help determine the future direction of Northern Ireland's government, so for now we can only wait.

28 Jan 2017: With an Assembly election looming, the outgoing DFI Minister released a press release on 24 January about this scheme, (though oddly it doesn't currently appear on the DFI web site). In it he said "funding of up to £4million will be made available to develop the York Street Interchange Scheme to a construction ready state and has confirmed that contract award for the scheme development will be progressed". He went on to say that the funding would "allow the scheme to be developed to a point where construction could begin. The identification of funding for the construction phase will be dependent on future budgets and is unclear at this time". This is absolutely full of caveats. All it is really saying is that development work will continue but that there is no money to build it and no timescale for doing so. The note that "contract award for the scheme development will be progressed" is interestingly worded. The contract for schemes like this is usually divided into a design phase and a build phase, with the contractor involved in both but a "break" clause between them so that the scheme could conceivably not be built even with a contractor appointed. The wording of the press release seems to be saying that a contractor will be appointed (but doesn't say when) and that this would be for scheme "development", ie the design phase. In summary, I would read this press release as an attempt to show that the Minister supports the scheme and wants to progress it, but as a press release it also succeeds at not committing to actually doing so or to any particular timescale. So I think it's a case of "as you were".

26 Dec 2016: As predicted in the previous update, the Minister announced his intention to proceed with the York Street Interchange scheme on 15 November, though I have not had a chance to update the site until now. Four things were published on this date. Firstly, there is Inspector's report of the public inquiry which was held in November 2015. The inspector has basically recommended that the scheme proceed in its current form, with only minor tweaks, ie as a series of underpasses creating freeflow links on all four movements between Westlink and the M2 and Westlink and the M3. You can download the Inspector's report from this page. Secondly, the Departmental Statement was also published. This is the DFI's official response to the Inspector's report, and sets out their reaction to each of the inspectors' recommendations. The Departmental Statement can also be downloaded from this page. Thirdly, the Notice to Proceed basically sets out formally that they intend to move towards construction. And finally, the Designation Order is a legal document needed to give TransportNI permission to build new sections of trunk road. This is all well and good, but the one thing missing from the equation is the money needed to build it, and therefore also any timetable for construction. The procurement process is technically underway, but currently on hold. The decision to put the tender award on hold resulted in a lot of debate in October, most notably in the Assembly in late 2016 where you can see a range of written questions on the subject.

The Minister clarified his position on 20 October 2016 in a press release and it worth quoting him at length: "while [York Street Interchange] is a project that could have attracted up to 40% EU funding, there would still be a 60% gap to make up. My Department has of course been pursuing European funding for York Street Interchange through the Connecting Europe Facility. Unlike structural funds, this is a highly competitive funding programme with member states required to submit applications as part of a formal bidding process. This is implemented by a series of calls for funding. The next call for major projects is anticipated for early 2018. As a result, the funding stream for this project goes beyond the timeframe set by the chancellor [who guaranteed to cover EU funding up to the date of the UK's departure from the EU]. To clarify the position on procurement of the York Street project specifically, the bidding exercise has now been extended so procurement decisions can be made in line with future funding allocations.” Note that in the same press release he gave the cost of the scheme as £130m, which is more specific and surprisingly better than the £125m-165m being quoted two years ago, so we will run with that.

So the position of the Minister is that the scheme will go ahead, but that the earliest possible date to apply or EU funding is early 2018. That may well be true, and I have no reason to doubt the Minister, but something doesn't quite add up in my head here. On 15 March 2016 the then-DRD Minister Michelle McIlveen released a press release announcing the start of the procurement process and stating that "Construction is programmed to commence late in 2017 and be completed by the end of 2020". This press release has mysteriously vanished from the Executive press release archive but it was reported by the BBC the next day. The press release explicitly states that justification for going out to procurement at that stage was in order to qualify for EU funding, and at this stage it was obvious from all conversations that the intention was to proceed with part EU funding (up to 40%). Both the above press release and folks I spoke to in TransportNI in this period seemed to be working on the assumption that it would begin in late 2017 and that there would be EU funding. However, the new DFI Minister is now quite clear that the earliest possible date to even apply for EU funding is early 2018. If that is true, then commencement in late 2017 was surely never on the cards? And that means that either someone senior in the DRD was wrong in March 2016 or someone senior in the DFI is wrong now. So I continue to hold the view that there is something more going on here than the mere availability of funding. Time will surely tell.

19 Oct 2016: Yesterday TransportNI issued their updated "procurement plan" for the current financial year. This document is mainly for the benefit of contractors and allows us to see what contracts have been awarded, are to be awarded and which are yet to go to tender. The tender process for this scheme is currently underway (and has been since March when the proper tender process began) but tellingly, York Street Interchange is listed in the procurement plan "on hold", the only scheme in the list to say this. This is yet another indication that the timescale of this scheme is now much less certain. This evening InfrastructureNI tweeted the clarification: "Progress on the York Street Interchange scheme to be determined by the forthcoming Budget process. Until then, procurement on hold". As I have said before (see update below on 17 Aug for example) since May the scheme has had the double hit of (a) Brexit potentially torbedoeing its EU funding (up to 40%) plus (b) a Minister who is very keen to invest in roads in the North West and clearly views the A5 and A6 as higher priorities. The former, likely influenced by the latter to some extent, is the likely reason for the tender process now being put "on hold". TransportNI had previously said they wanted the scheme to go to ground in Autumn 2017, and this seems unlikely now. That said, the scheme has not been cancelled, merely delayed. The tweet by InfrastructureNI is correct that there is to be a budget announcement sometime later in the autumn which could (potentially) release additional funds for York Street Interchange. There is also the UK Chancellor's guarantee to cover EU funding for offers received from now up to the date of the UK's final departure from the European Union. So if those two stars align the scheme could still go ahead. However, my expectation is that the Minister will announce before too long that he has decided to proceed with the scheme, but on a longer timeframe than hitherto anticpated.

8 Oct 2016: After my rather pessimistic assessment last week (see previous update below) there was some welcome positive news for this scheme this week. The UK government has extended its guarantee to cover any EU funds lost as a result of Brexit from those offered up to the Autumn Statement this year until those offered up to the date of the UK's final departure from the European Union, which we know is at least two years way. This means that if TransportNI can secure an offer of EU funding for York Street Interchange within the next two years or so, the UK government will guarantee to pay it if we have left the EU by the time it's built. So that removes a bit of uncertainty from the funding side of things. This does not necessarily mean that TransportNI actually have to BUILD it in that timeframe (though we may have to have started it) but provided we have the offer then it ought to be covered. So this does seem to add some concrete to the scheme - if you can excuse the pun - though still doesn't allow us to conclude much about when it might actually happen. The Finance Minister is due to make funding announcements in the next few weeks which will allow the Infrastructure Minister to make more solid plans.

2 Oct 2016: In a Written Answer in the Assembly on 22 September the DFI Minister confirmed that the result of the EU referendum has delayed publication of the Public Inquiry Inspector's Report (which we had expected in the spring of 2016) and the DFI's response to the Report, termed the "Departmental Statement". He went on to say "I plan to make an announcement with regard to the Public Inquiry within the next few weeks and this will inform the progress towards construction for this project". Now this scheme is currently out to tender and TransportNI have previously indicated that they want to be in a position to begin construction in just over a year's time, in late 2017. The scheme stands to get up to 40% EU funding (over £60m) and this is now obviously in jeopardy, meaning that the bill for the Executive has now gone up by the same amount. And although the tender process is underway it's vital to understand that the Executive has currently given NO funding to allow York Street Interchange to proceed to construction. Because my feeling is still that the Minister does not want to commit any funds to this scheme before he funds schemes on the A5 and A6, in my view the "announcement" is going to be publication of the Inspector's Report and the Departmental Statement, plus a well-publicised decision to proceed, but nothing more, ie no funding and no actual commencement of construction. So expect a press release that says something like "Minister decides to proceed with York Street Interchange" but is vague on when this will happen.

17 Aug 2016: This update is to put in writing something that I have suspected since the election, namely that the future of this scheme is looking very shakey. Given that I have long had the impression that this scheme is regarded as the highest priority scheme amongst TransportNI engineers - and is in fact out to tender as we speak, with commencement of construction said to be just over a year away - this would be quite a turnaround. There are two reasons for me thinking the future of the scheme is shakey. Firstly, Brexit. This scheme is on Euroroute E01, which means that it stood to get a substantial EU contribution, up to 40%. With a total cost of up to £165m, 40% funding would mean a figure of over £60m. The outcome of the EU referendum on 23 June threw this funding into jeopardy, and losing £60m is a serious setback. The DfI Minister, Chris Hazzard, said in an interview in the Irish News last week "There is no doubt that some of the projects that this department and myself would have been looking at [primarily York St Interchange] would involve additional funds from Europe. These are the challenges we face over the months and years ahead if we want to move on and develop our infrastructure – how are we going to make up the (funding) gap?" However, I don't think it would be right to suggest that Brexit is the only issue here. I am also getting the distinct impression that the new DfI Minister is lukewarm on York Street interchange anyway. I first noted this in my blog before the EU vote, where I observed that it was really strange that Mr Hazzard's list of upcoming schemes did not even mention York Street, given that it was one of the highest profile schemes in development. His tendency to say little or nothing about York Street has continued since then, contrasting sharply with Danny Kennedy's comparative enthusiasm. Why might the Minister not be keen on York Street interchange? Well, in June he issued a press release that explicitly said that his priority would be "to deliver infrastructure projects to connect people and address the infrastructure deficit west of the Bann", which he explained meant upgrades of the A5 and A6. He went on to say that "Construction of the first phase of the A5 Western Transport Corridor, from Newbuildings to north of Strabane, is due to begin in 2017... However, I am currently looking at how funding could be increased to expedite delivery of the A5 scheme" (emphasis mine). My theory - and it is just a theory - is that Minister has nothing against York Street in principle, but he wants to throw all the resources TransportNI have at the A5 and A6 and get as much of those upgraded before any more road upgrades take place in Belfast. I doubt very much that the senior engineers would agree with this approach, but the Minister is the boss, and rightly so because he is an elected public representative. And that, if this is indeed his plan, the Brexit vote will have made his job in selling such a decision to the road-using public much easier. So I am going to go out on a limb here and say that in my view there is very little chance of York Street interchange actually getting underway in late 2017 as stated by TransportNI in March 2016 and that it could, in fact, be delayed by several years beyond then.

2 May 2016: Just before the pre-election purdah period began, the DRD Minister released a press release on 15 March announcing "the start of a tender process to appoint a contractor" for this scheme. Actually the tender "process" has been underway since November 2015 when the pre-tender phase began, during which contractors are allowed to express interest in tendering. Once that's completed, it enters a second phase where selected contractors them submit their tenders. Presumably the press release was indicating that the second of these phases had begun. Semantics aside, the press release more usefully indicated that a contractor for the first phase of the project (design, detailed cost estimates and ground investigation works) should be in place by July this year, at which point "a final announcement on the Department’s intentions will be published", ie they'll say whether or not they're going to go ahead and build it. This will depend on the outcome of the public inquiry that took place last autumn, though I think it's very unlikely that they'll not proceed at this stage given how much of a priority it has within the DRD and almost universal support across the mainstream political spectrum. The contract for the second phase of the project, construction, is then due to be awarded in July 2017 and will involve detailed design and then construction of the junction. The press release also states that "construction is programmed to commence late in 2017 and be completed by the end of 2020". This is true, but the key missing piece in the jigsaw is funding - which the Executive has not yet granted. Without this, the scheme's "programmed" commencement date doesn't mean anything, so we would need to see some announcement on this within the next 18 months for this to happen. The Minister was more explicit on this point when she answered a question on the subject in the Assembly on the same date: "My Department has commenced the procurement process ... in order to be in a position to commence construction towards the end of 2017. The development and construction of the scheme to the programme that I outlined is very dependent on the availability of finance. A full economic business case will have to be approved by the Department of Finance and Personnel before any commitments can be given to start construction."

On the point of funding, the DRD Minister has confirmed in the Assembly in early February that the scheme is eligible for part-funding from the European Union because it is on the TEN-T network (the network of core roads throughout the EU, the Larne to Rosslare route via Westlink being part of route E01). She said that the scheme "is one of very few schemes to be pre-identified for future [EU] funding. The proposed construction programme of November 2017 to December 2020 aligns the funding profile expected for the next call. Therefore, the scheme will be in a pretty good place to have a good strong bid. The project lies on the North Sea/Mediterranean corridor in the TEN-T network. Officials have successfully negotiated for the interchange's inclusion as a pre-identified project in the corridor work plan." Obviously the upcoming EU referendum has the potential to throw a spanner in the works of such a bid.

11 Feb 2016: According to a Written Answer in the Assembly (AQO 9518/11-16), we now know for certain that the Public Inquiry Inspector has now completed his Report and this has been submitted to the DRD. The DRD will now examine the report and decide if they are going to change anything in their plans as a result. Once this work is done they will publish the Inspector's Report and their response (the "Departmental Statement") simultaneously. The Written Answer suggests this will happen in "spring 2016", ie within the next four months. This is very quick indeed (by contrast the DRD has still not published these documents for the A6 Derry-Dungiven scheme despite having had the Inspector's Report for almost three years) and proves that this scheme is indeed a very high priority within the DRD. She added that the aim was "beginning construction toward the end of 2017" adding that "this programme dovetails with the requirements for EU funding". There is currently no funding for the scheme despite these positive words. Whether the scheme gets funding to commence in late 2017 is not down to the DRD Minister, but will depend on whether the Executive agrees to give it funding in the 2017/18 financial year. Meanwhile, work is well underway on the preparatory "York Street Interchange Advanced Works - Storm Chamber" project which is underway adjacent to the M3 flyover. It involves the construction of underground wastewater infrastructure within the York Street junction that will ultimately be used to take rainwater away from the completed junction. The image below was taken yesterday about here and shows the top of a vertical shaft in a car park under the M3 flyover. I don't think this is the storm chamber itself, but rather an access shaft that the contractor, Terra Solutions, is currently using to carry out their work underground. The work is being carried out using "trenchless" technology, which presumably means they don't need to dig up the entire length of the pipework.

The top of a vertical shaft that has been constructed for the "York Street Interchange Advanced Works - Storm Chamber" project that is currently underway in and around the M3 flyover. Taken 10 Feb 2016 [Wesley Johnston].

29 Jan 2016: The tender process to appoint a contractor to build York Street Interchange is currently underway. The first phase (to create a shortlist of contractors that will go on to phase 2) ended on 12 January but phase 2 will take place out of the public eye. These things take quite a while, so I don't expect to hear of a contractor being appointed until maybe mid 2016. In the meantime, however, the DRD Minister mentioned the scheme in an Assembly Written Answer (AQW 52171/11-16) this week. She confirmed what we know about the tender process, and then added "It is anticipated that, subject to successful completion of statutory procedures and the necessary funding being made available, the York Street Interchange scheme will be ready to commence construction in 2017/18." The reference to "successful completion of statutory procedures" basically means "assuming it passes the public inquiry" that happened in November. I'm not anticipating any difficulties in that regard. The second reference, to "necessary funding being made available" is a much bigger "if". Funding allocations for the next five years were unveiled by the Executive on 17 December made no allocations at all for York Street interchange for the period up to 2021. That does not rule out money being made available - the 17 December allocations were not the ONLY money that can be made available for roads in the next five years, so there is still hope that some money will come through for York Street Interchange in that period. In its favour is the fact that this scheme will likely benefit from EU money to quite a significant degree - assuming there isn't a #Brexit in the meantime of course! In August I said that the scheme could get underway in late 2016 or 2017 if it was progressed at top speed, but the Minister's statement is, I think, more realistic in suggesting that it could be ready to begin construction in 2017/18, pretty much ruling out commencement later this year. With a three year construction period, that means the earliest possible completion date with everything going like clockwork would be mid 2020. The next two things to look out for are (1) the Inspector completing his report of the public inquiry (which will not be published until a later date however) and (2) the appointment of a contractor.

11 Dec 2015: In the update in September (below) I noted that the DRD was issuing a tender for a project called "York Street Interchange Advanced Works - Storm Chamber", which appears to involve the construction of an underground drainage chamber adjacent to the M3 viaduct. To be clear, although this appears to be required to facilitate the York Street Interchange project, it's not part of the main construction tender which has only just commenced. A "storm chamber" is usually a large underground chamber designed to hold water running off a road or other surface in the event of high rainfall to prevent it overwhelming local water infrastructure. I do know also that an arrangement has been reached with NI Water that the drainage infrastructure to be built as part of the York Street Interchange will also take runoff from surrounding land too. So the contract might be related to this. The construction contract for the "Storm Chamber" project was awarded to "Terra Solutions Ltd" on 1 December. Terra Solutions are a Newry-based firm specialising in trenchless civil engineering work. We will probably see evidence of this work taking place within the York Street interchange area over the coming months. The way in which it was awarded suggests that the contract value is probably below £1m.

23 Nov 2015: The Public Inquiry has now ended, after lasting three days approximately one week, plus some site visits. I managed to attend a couple of hours of the Inquiry out of personal interest - it was quite a lively affair, and the transcript will make for interesting reading in future years. Two alternative proposals were put forward to the Inspector, both claiming to offer fewer impacts on the local area, which the Inspector will now consider along with the more specific objections. Meanwhile, some exciting news - the initial phase of the construction tender for the scheme commenced yesterday. This is a two-phase process to appoint a contractor. This first phase, which closes on 12 January 2016, is to allow contractors to express interest in tendering for the scheme. Those who appear to be credible enough to carry out the work will then be invited to submit their actual tender. This second phase will be done out of public view, so after 12 January we will hear nothing more until the announcement that a contractor has been appointed, sometime later in 2016. The "contract duration" is given as 53 months, which is about four and a half years. Since we know actual construction will only take about three years, this presumably also incorporates the advanced design phase. A few points need to be stressed here. Firstly, this does not in any way prejudge the public inquiry - contracts like this are always worded in such a way that there is a break between the completion of design and actual construction, so if the Executive or the DRD decide not to proceed to construction, there is no contractual problem. Secondly, even if a contractor is appointed, construction will not take place until the Executive funds the scheme. So it's possible that - like has happened on the A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson - that the contractor could be appointed but no work actually take place on the ground. The DRD seem to be keen to begin work on the ground within 12 months - it remains to be seen whether the Executive will provide funding to permit this.

9 Nov 2015: The Public Inquiry begins tomorrow, 10th November in Assembly Buildings Conference Centre, Fisherwick Place, Belfast BT1 6DW, starting at 10.00 am. Given the large scale of this project and the number of issues it raises I would expect it to last for a number of days. It remains to be seen whether it will attract much media interest. This will be the sixth public inquiry in the history of the Belfast Urban Motorway (which later evolved into Westlink and the M3) - the previous five being held in 1969, 1972, 1977, 1988 and 2000 - so this scheme should be seen in its historical context as a continuation of events of the past fifty years, and not in isolation. (If you are interested in the history of the Belfast Urban Motorway can I humbly suggest my book!) You can find out more about the Public Inquiry and how to contribute here. TransportNI has also recently published its procurement update (basically a list of what it intends to spend money on, and when) and this again shows that the intention is to release the tender for design and construction of this scheme before December with a contractor to be appointed by June 2016. This does not pre-empt the Inquiry since most design and build contracts like this one have clauses that allow for the possibility that the scheme might not proceed to construction. Potential contractors were invited to an "open forum", organised by TransportNI, on 23 September where (I assume) contractors were able to ask questions of TransportNI prior to the tendering process opening.

8 Oct 2015: The pre-inquiry meeting took place on Monday, 5 October to which all objectors were invited (see previous update below). It seems that only 33 objections were received which, given the enormous impact of this scheme on the locality, is really quite remarkable. Of these, 20 related to provisions for cyclists and pedestrians and 3 felt that the A5 and/or A6 schemes should be prioritised. Also, a dedicated web site seems to have been set up for the scheme featuring all the information about the scheme and some videos. The DRD has re-launched its own web site which looks very good, although it does mean that most of the links from my site to the DRD site are now broken!

14 Sep 2015: I continue to be astounded by the rapid pace of work on this scheme, and I am convinced now that it is one of the highest, if not the highest, priority scheme within the DRD. Information is now being circulated about the public inquiry which will take place from 10th November 2015 in Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast. It will be led by Mr Jim Robb, who has chaired a number of recent public inquiries including the various A6 schemes. A pre-inquiry meeting is to be held from 10.30 am on 5th October in the same venue. It seems that anyone who wants to address the public inquiry is expected to turn up at this pre-inquiry meeting and also to supply a copy of all evidence that they intend to give to the inquiry by this date. This gives less than a month for any objectors to write and submit their evidence. I am not sure that objectors can be compelled to hand their evidence over to the inquiry in this way, but I can understand the Inspector's desire to request this. In related news, a future tender has appeared on the DRD web site for what is called "York Street Interchange Advanced Works - Storm Chamber", which appears to involve the construction of an underground drainage chamber adjacent to the M3 viaduct. It is estimated to be released for tender this month. It's not clear why these works aren't bundled in with the main construction tender, but it could be that it is somehow critical to the schedule of works and that having it constructed ahead of the main scheme could speed things up. The DRD must be very confident that the scheme will pass the public inquiry if they are prepared to issue tenders like this ahead of the inquiry! Finally, the DRD Minister resigned last week, and has not yet been replaced, so it is unclear now what criteria DRD managers can use to decide what progresses and when. However, speaking as someone who has closely observed the road construction programme over the past decade, I have to say that if York Street Interchange were to get funding before the scheme to dual the A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson then something would definitely not be right.

18 Aug 2015: A "prior information notice" about this scheme appeared on the European Union's tender system ten days ago. This is NOT an advertisement for tenders for the scheme, but rather notice that such a tender will be following. Think of it as a "heads up" to the civil engineering community. It is pretty obvious now that this scheme is being pushed ahead as rapidly as possible within the DRD, and indeed the DRD's own list of "future tenders" suggests that the tender will be released in November this year. Although the public inquiry has not happened, this is not pre-empting the inquiry since TransportNI has moved to "Early Contractor Involvement" contracts (see previous update below). The "prior information notice" on the EU web site suggests that the tender will be published on 16 November 2015 (although this may not be set in stone). Astonishingly, it then goes on to suggest a scheduled date for start of construction as 1 July 2016! That would mean seven and a half months for the entire tender process, as well as carrying out the public inquiry, writing the inspector's report and dealing with any recommendations. So I am somewhat skeptical that work could start as quickly as that. However, the project completion date given is December 2020, ie four and a half years after the start of work. That, I think, is more time than the project would really need (we have been led to believe that construction will take about three years) so this suggests that these two dates are more the book-ends of a time period during which construction would proceed, but not necessarily taking that entire time period. In December 2014 (see earlier updates below) the official position was a start date in 2018, but that an "acceleration" was being considered, and I think this is in fact the case. Subject to the public inquiry, I think a commencement date of late 2016 or 2017 is possible if a rapid pace of work is maintained. I still believe that the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dualling scheme will begin first (if it doesn't there's something wrong) but I think that this scheme may well be next in the queue after that. There are interesting times ahead for lovers (or otherwise) of urban motorways.

10 Jun 2015: The DRD web site is now reporting that "Gateway 2" for this scheme was approved by the TransportNI on 14 May 2015. This is official speak for "OK, let's prepare the contract documents". In the past 3 or 4 years, TransportNI has moved to "Early Contractor Involvement" contracts which means that they involve contractors during the design phases, and not waiting until all the planning is done. This seems to lead to benefits for everyone. So it makes sense to prepare the contract documents now, even though the public inquiry hasn't even happened yet (that's starting 10 Nov 2015). The rapid progression of timescales for this scheme reinforces my view that this scheme is a very high priority within TransportNI (I would now place it second in the pecking order after the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dualling scheme which I still think will proceed next). The scheme could well proceed to construction in 2018 as TransportNI seem to hope.

29 May 2015: It has now been revealed, via the minutes of a recent meeting, that the public inquiry into the York Street interchange project will begin on 10 November 2015. The same minutes reveal that the DRD are seeking to complete the project by 2021. With a construction period of three years, this would mean commencing work during 2018. This seems just about feasible provided (i) the public inquiry does not raise any serious problems (ii) the process of appointing a contractor goes smoothly and (iii) provided there is any cash to actually build it in 2018. With the current financial fiasco that is gripping Stormont, especially after the events of the past week, it is very far from certain whether this will be the case. If the financial empasse is not resolved, we could be looking at very deep cuts to the DRD in the next 2 or 3 years which in a worst-case scenario could mean no money at all for road improvement schemes.

25 Mar 2015: The public exhibition took place in February as discussed below, and this included an incredible 3D model of the proposed junction which the public were able to see - see picture below. The DRD Minister today announced that there will be a public inquiry. This is interesting not because there will be an inquiry (an inquiry was inevitable) but because it's come so rapidly after the end of the consultation period, which ended just 15 days ago. This rapid movement to the next stage suggests that this scheme is a high priority within TransportNI and that they are keen to keep the ball rolling. The press release indicates that the inquiry will likely be held in "late autumn 2015", which we could take to mean November. This scheme will mark another chapter in the long-running history of what began life in the 60s as the Belfast Urban Motorway. Its highly sensitive location close to the city centre means that the inquiry will have to consider a very wide range of issues. If the pace of work continues, and if the Dept of Finance comes up with the necessary funding, work could be underway within three years.


Model of TransportNI's proposed York Street junction on display, 10 Feb 2015. The tan colour on some of the ground around the junction indicates land that could be released for development, while green coloured land would remain owned by TransportNI. Thank you to the folks at TransportNI who facilitated me taking this photo. [Wesley Johnston]

27 Jan 2015: The DRD Minister today announced that the draft legal orders for this scheme have now been published. These are the three legal documents required before a new road can be built. They are: the Designation Order (detailing where the new trunk road is to run), the Environmental Statement (a weighty tome that makes the case for the road and details its impacts) and the Vesting Order (which compels landowners to sell the land required for the road). These documents are "draft" at this stage in the sense that the scheme is still being planned. These documents will form the basis of the Public Inquiry which will certainly have to be held. Before the Public Inquiry, however, there is a public consultation to gauge public opinion and invite comments or objections, and that is what today's announcement is setting in motion. The consultation period will run from 28 January until 10 March. The Minister said in his press release that "I would encourage everyone who cares about the development of our road infrastructure to get involved and take part in the public consultation process", a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree and echo, especially given the scale of these proposals. To assist the public a new document, the Stage 3 Assessment Report, has just been published on the DRD web site which incorporates the Environmental Statement. The other two draft legal orders are there too. There is a lot of material to digest here and I have not yet read it myself! The only comment of note to make now is that the cost has been revised up to £125-165m which is quite an increase on the cost of £100-135m that was estimated in December 2012. The press release also clarifies that construction would take roughly three years. There will be a public exhibition in the Ramada Encore hotel in Belfast city centre, where a scale model and computer generated graphics of the scheme will be on display. The exhibition will be open on Monday 9 February from 2pm to 9pm and Tuesday 10 February from 10am to 9pm.

18 Dec 2014: The Minister was asked about this scheme in the Assembly last week. In my update 12 days ago I noted that we have not yet had publication of the draft legal orders, and so it is timely the Minister said that this would happen "during the current financial year", which we can take to mean by April 2015. This would almost certainly be followed by a public inquiry. He reiterated the view that construction on the scheme could get underway "in 2018" subject to finance and would take three years to build. This would see the junction completed in 2021. This is a challenging timescale, but I believe do-able if everything moves at peak efficiency. The biggest caveat is probably funding - with increasing austerity the scheme may well reach the point of being shovel-ready but not commence due to lack of funds. It would also be a brave Minister indeed who would announce funding for this scheme ahead of any more work on the A6 (the road to Derry)! Meanwhile, in a question for Written Answer published a fortnight ago, the Minister said that "is expected that the vesting of land for the project will commence early in 2015". It remains to be seen how realistic this is, given that the Vesting Order has not even been published yet and that the scheme may well need a public inquiry. One advantage is that the DRD already owns some of the land needed, eg the car park mentioned in the question, and also their own TransportNI section office which will have to be demolished.

6 Dec 2014: According to the minutes of a TransportNI board meeting held on 1 October (but just published) this scheme continues to progress rapidly. The minutes state that "the current programme envisages an early 2018 start date, however, acceleration of the project is being considered". Given that we have not even had publication of the Environmental Statement, let alone a public inquiry, starting construction in early 2018 would require a constant pace of work from now, while accelerating the programme would be challenging. For example, the type of large cranes needed require up to 12 months' notice before being installed. Nevertheless, this comment implies that TransportNI now regard this as one of the most important road schemes in the planning stages.

7 Jun 2014: Back in mid May the DRD released their vision for the future of investment in railways over the next 20 years. The plan includes a scheme to widen the Dargan Viaduct in Belfast from one to two lanes. This is the stretch of railway that runs overhead beside the M3 motorway connecting the Larne railway line to the Bangor railway line, and which opened at the same time as the M3 in 1995. This document implies that this work will take place at the same time as (perhaps even in the same contract as) the York Street junction upgrade. The document says "The track dualling is expected to coincide with the Department’s plans to upgrade the Westlink - York Road - M2 road junction, also a bottleneck on the TEN-T Core Corridor." This is yet another example of how the York Street junction upgrade will benefit literally all forms of transport in the city: as well as improving journeys for vehicles, it will allow the reclamation of the local streets for walking, cycling and bus priority infrastructure. Trains are now added to the list of beneficiaries.

4 Dec 2013: Preparation work on this scheme continues to move forward, strongly suggesting that this scheme is considered a high priority within Roads Service. After the announcement of the preferred option almost exactly a year ago, detailed design work on this option has been progressing. The DRD's own web site is saying that work is also taking place on the suite of documents that are required before the scheme can move to the public inquiry stage (the Environmental Statement and draft legal orders) and that these are expected to be ready by "late 2014". If Roads Service keep pushing this scheme we could conceivably see a public inquiry taking place in 2015. A public inquiry and follow-up work can take perhaps a year, and procurement a further 9 months, so in a best case scenario (ie where there are no unforeseen delays and the Executive makes money available straight away) we could see construction getting underway during 2017. This is my speculation, however: Roads Service have not committed to a timescale.

11 Mar 2013: A Ground Investigation contract got underway on 21 January (according to these meeting minutes) the purpose of which will be to find out exactly what is lurking under the ground at the site of this proposed junction upgrade. This will allow a more detailed design to be undertaken, for example, determining precisely what amount and type of piling will be required in each location. I am getting the impression that this scheme is a high priority within Roads Service. The recently-agreed Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland suggests that after the current round of projects (A5WTC, A8 Larne and A2 Greenisland) the focus will move to the M2, A6 and A26, with a possibility of using what is calls "alternative finance", perhaps some kind of public/private partnership. The reference to "M2" could only refer to the York Street scheme. Therefore, I think we will see things move rapidly on this scheme (or as rapidly as major infrastructure schemes can move, at any rate!).

6 Dec 2012: The announcement of the preferred option for this junction was made this morning. The speculation two days ago (see below) was incorrect, and in fact Roads Service have selected Option C, the fully grade-separated underpass option. There will be no 18 metre flyover at York Street. I have included a screen shot of Option C towards the top of this page, along with some initial observations of the design from a road user's point of view. However, I must take my 'neutral' hat off at this point and add that this is the best decision Roads Service could possibly have made, as the option they have chosen is a win-win for everyone. This option not only gives fully free flowing links to the busiest signalised junction on the road network, and increases its capacity, but will also take a lot of traffic down out of sight below ground level, and will reduce traffic levels significantly on surface streets, potentially allowing schemes to increase public transport / cycling / pedestrian use of these spaces, and also to allow the commercial redevelopment of these streets. The folks at the Forum for Alternative Belfast have developed a commendable plan of how this could be achieved without sacrificing the benefits of the scheme by using Option C as the starting point. I do note that the cost estimate has gone up from £98m (as of 2011) to the range £100m-£135m. This cost creep has been a feature of many road schemes here in recent years. For those who are really interested, there are about 1,200 pages of technical drawings and reports available here. You'll find everything from possible sites for cranes to the locations of the drains. The main drawing of the chosen option is here. Happy reading! I will make more detailed comments over on my blog in a week or two once I've had a change to digest this huge report. We should also thank Roads Service for making the report available in such a usable format online.

4 Dec 2012: Further to the previous update, it is now known that the announcement of the preferred option for this scheme will be on Thursday morning, 6th December. The folks at PLACE seem to have information suggesting that the preferred option is Option B (see all four options here, and in the table above). However, this has not been verified by Roads Service. Under Option B all four moments between the Westlink and M2 / M3 would be freeflowing which would be excellent given that two of the options had one signalised connection. The most controversial element of Option B is undoubtedly the 18 metre flyover over the M3 and railway viaducts which is proposed to take the M2->Westlink movement. We will have to wait until Thursday to see if this speculation is correct.

1 Dec 2012: There are rumours that there will be some kind of announcement concerning this scheme before Christmas. As I said in the last update, Roads Service have probably selected a preferred option by now, so any announcement would be likely to relate to this. However, we will have to wait and see what happens. Roads Service were selecting from four preliminary options, as described above. Watch this space.

24 Oct 2012: It has been 16 months since the last update, with nothing further published. However, the DRD web site has just been updated to say that the "Stage 2 Report" was "presented to Roads Service Board October 2012." This report does not seem to have been published online, but it is likely to contain a refinement of the four preliminary options detailed in June last year, probably containing more accurate designs and costings, and probably making a specific recommendation about the preferred option. Hopefully it will be released soon - but Roads Service have not publicised a timetable of milestones for this scheme, so we do not know when this might happen.

5 June 2011: Roads Service and designers Scott Wilson held their exhibition last week which included four excellent 3D animations of the new junction which I hope appear online at some point. You can see some stills on the BBC web site. They gave out leaflets (downloadable here) and questionnaires and spoke to members of the public and presented four options which I have summarised in a table above. Only options B and C are fully freeflow. Options B and D feature a bridge over the existing M2, which would be a significant structure at 18 metres above ground level, but not entirely out of keeping with the area. It was pointed out at the consultation that the flyovers allow gentler curves and more coinsistent speeds than the underpass option. The underpass is less visually intrusive, but more challenging as it has to go between the pillars of the M3 and Dargan Railway Bridges which were not designed with this in mind. Since this upgrade will almost certainly be the last major project to be carried out on this junction for several decades, it would seem very shortsighted indeed to go anything short of a fully freeflow design – ie options B and C are the only viable options in my view. In terms of timescale, no money has yet been allocated so there is no construction date other than the more general "by 2018" that was quoted in 2008.

14 May 2011: Roads Service will be holding a Public Exhibition of their current proposals on 1 and 2 June 2011, in the Ramada Encore Hotel, St Anne's Square, Belfast. On the 1st the event will run from 2pm to 9pm, and on the 2nd it will run from 10am to 9pm. Full details here. The event will be detailing the current route options, which are probably going to be refined versions of those in the 2009 Preliminary Options Report (see previous update). I would urge all those with an interest in the scheme to turn up as this is a pivotal junction, the meeting points of the three busiest roads in Northern Ireland.

12 Mar 2010: This update is purely to draw your attention to the fact that the Preliminary Options Report of March 2009 is available online here (links on right of the page). It goes into incredible detail with maps of everything from the gas mains to traffic signal wiring. It also shows 3D computer generated diagams of the route options (Figures in Section 4). Four of the six options considered have been brought forward for further consideration. I have added links to maps of these four options to the text above - just click the thumbnail images.

6 July 2009: In one of these written answers in the Assembly from mid June, the Minister publicly re-confirmed Roads Service's intention to proceed with the scheme, and also accepted what they and everyone else already knew which is that "the completion of the M2 Improvements and the M1/Westlink Schemes has resulted in traffic now being delivered much more quickly to the Nelson Street off slip and York Street junction" and that "this has resulted in increased pressure on this part of the road network". The need for this final part of the jigsaw is now self-evident to motorists. Finally, they confirmed that the work which began in June at the York Street end of the Westlink is an "interim measure" and involves "widening the M2 bound carriageway of the Westlink, to provide a dedicated left turn lane to York Street, and extending the length of the existing M3 bound lane."

16 May 2009: According to the minutes of a Roads Service board meeting at the end of March 2009, the Preliminary Options report has now been completed (although not published publicly). The board has now granted "gateway 0" approval. In laymans language, this means that the scheme has been approved, in principle, and they will now proceed to develop more detailed options. Also, an Order comes into force on 22 June 2009 which will result in Henry Street being stopped up at York Street. This is a residential street that currently joins York Street at a T-junction between the Cityside Shopping Centre and the Westlink (with barriers to prevent its use as a rat run). It may be completely unrelated, but it is worth noting that stopping up this junction will make the design of the new York Street interchange much easier.

11 Apr 2009: Speaking to a member of Roads Service, it seems that Roads Service are currently considering a number of possible options for the design of this junction, and that the model pictured above is of just one of these. The options being considered include layouts going over the top of the M3 flyover, and ones that involve going below ground level. Some kind of announcement is likely within the next year or so. It is likely that public pressure will encourage this scheme, since the completion of the Westlink and M2 schemes are likely to result in increased congestion at this junction from 2009 and onwards. Construction is currently timetabled for the period 2014-2018.

9 May 2008: At last, the scheme has been given the go-ahead. The document "Investment Delivery Plan For Roads", published in April 2008, includes the plan in the "forward planning schedule" for schemes where permission has been granted to proceed with design and consultation work. Construction is timetabled for the period between 2013 and 2018, but this is an approximate period.

26 Mar 2008: No announcement was made last May as indicated. However, the scheme is very much on the cards. Two developments suggest this is the case:

  1. An area of land to the east of Nelson Street (beside the former "Clarendon Square" development) was fenced off in the past year and has apparently been purchased with this scheme in mind - for the M2->Westlink sliproad.
  2. On 28 November 2007 the Regional Development Minister committed to the scheme, although referring to it as a "longer term" proposal. Nevertheless, he announced that a consultancy firm would be appointed "in the next few weeks" and that they "expect that this proposal will cost around £50 million".

Further calls were made in March 2008 by the IEC-CBI Joint Business Council for this scheme to proceed. They argue that "It is crucial to ensure that an efficient freight and logistics system is in place on both sides of the border, in time and with sufficient capacity to encourage rather than to constrain expected economic growth."

Mar 2007: It is thought that the Roads Service are actively pursuing this scheme and currently it seems as if some kind of announcement will be made in May 2007 giving more details about what is proposed. Construction dates are unknown, but traffic congestion will likely make it a priority. I would be surprised if the completed junction was not in place by 2015 at the latest.

Photos

Google Earth image dating from the mid 2000s showing the area in question. The M2 is to the top right, the M3 to the bottom right and the A12 Westlink to the left. York Street runs diagonally from top centre to bottom left. The city centre is below the image and the Port of Belfast is to beyond the top right of the picture. [Picture from Google Earth]

Historical Image

The proposed scheme is reminiscent of this three-way freeflow junction proposed for the same site back in 1967 which would have connected the M2 to the two arms of the Belfast Urban Motorway (constructed as A12 Westlink and M3). Full size image. See link at top of page for more details.