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Getting balance of local bus service right is vital, SPC hears

A rural transport system linking outlying towns to Mullingar is vital in the battle to reduce carbon emissions, but will it kill off business in smaller towns and villages. These were points raised at a recent meeting of the Transport and Planning SPC.

Cllr Denis Leonard said there must be routes in and out of Mullingar from all our towns – Rochfortbridge, Kinnegad, Killucan, Castlepollard, Delvin, wherever – so that people have an option to take a local bus into the town, do their business and take a local bus back. The National Transport Association, Bus Éireann and Irish Rail need to step up so we can have proper carbon mitigation, he urged.

Cllr Frank McDermott was not so sure. He said rural transport is a great idea, but if you are a businessperson in one of the outlying towns such as Collinstown or Delvin and you see 10 or 15 of your potential customers getting on the bus for Mullingar and then see them coming back laden with shopping bags, you are not going to be happy. The rate-payers in Delvin and Castlepollard and such towns “will say to themselves what the hell is that doing to me?”, he said.

“I would have no problem with a rural bus for social or medical events or to go into Mullingar to look around, walk around, maybe have a cup of coffee and go home, but if I was a rate-payer, I certainly wouldn’t be impressed to see a merry load of gear getting off the bus. We must get the balance right and I’m confident we will,” Cllr McDermott remarked.

The members were considering a presentation by Orla McGann on the new Mullingar Local Area Plan which is being drawn up.

Cllr Leonard called for more in the plan about future bypasses. We don’t really have a bypass in Mullingar because all the bypasses are being built with houses left and right, east and west.

For people to get around the town, especially heavy goods vehicles, we are going to have to come up with more orbital routes and that must be part of it, he said.

Cllr Leonard said the plan must have town buses at the centre of it; it must have park and ride strategies; it must have appropriate bypasses and orbital routes and a fair distribution of Active Travel routes so that cars can be left at home. There’s no point in building housing estates with no parking spaces in them if people do not have the option to take public transport, walk or cycle, he said.

About 40% of emissions come from transport. We talk about carbon mitigation and biodiversity; we talk about renewables and agriculture; the low hanging fruit is transport. Take cars off the road. You can’t have people coming in from the rural areas and sitting in the choked traffic going through Mullingar, he added.

In reply to the chairperson, Cllr Louise Heavin, Ms McGann confirmed that a comprehensive traffic and transport assessment is being carried out and will feed into the plan. It will identify preferred options including a town bus service. Cllr Heavin said it was important the plan was seen as part of the overall county plan and that towns and villages have an input.

In addition to the transport assessment, the Mullingar green/blue infrastructure strategy is being examined to protect, enhance and increase connectivity to the network of green/blue infrastructure assets in the town, Ms McGann said.

A Mullingar social infrastructure audit has looked at the capacity of existing community facilities across the town and provides for new facilities and amenities, having regard to the anticipated increase in the population of the town by 2030. A Mullingar town centre health check regarding the vibrancy of the town centre and an analysis of the land uses including an analysis of the usage of the vacancies, has been undertaken.

Pre-draft consultation took place between October 10 and November 23 and details were posted on the council’s consultation portal on its website and on its social media channels.

“We had 9,000 hits, which was a good return,” Ms McGann reported.

The plan deals with the need for sufficient zoned land to accommodate the number of houses that will be needed in Mullingar in the coming years.

We have provision for economic development and employment. “Place making and regeneration are important parts of the plan, and we will be proposing opportunity sites in Mullingar,” Ms McGann said. We will be doing development briefs for those and identifying areas where we can accommodate increased building heights, she added.

Cultural heritage and tourism are also important parts of the plan. We are trying to protect our natural and built heritage throughout the town and enhance them and increase connectivity to them, she stated.

Transport mobility is a central theme of the plan as is climate action. Mullingar is identified as a decarbonising zone and the plan will propose climate mitigation and adaptation measures, Ms McGann added.

So far, consultation has taken place with many bodies including the Mullingar Chamber of Commerce and some 900 community groups, through the PPN network.

We met several key stakeholders including the Westmeath Childcare Committee, Comhairle na nÓg, Mullingar Sustainable Energy Communities and Mullingar Tidy Towns, Ms McGann said.

Two public consultation sessions were held, on October 26 and November 21. Thirty-three people attended and planning staff were available to assist the public in making submissions.

Thirty-seven submissions were received, and these will be analysed and responded to in a chief executive’s report which will be brought before the councillors.

We are at the end of the pre-draft plan stage and are currently writing up the draft plan. It’s anticipated it will go on display in early summer and once it goes on display, it will take 35 weeks to process, Ms McGann concluded.