The Railway Field site in Athlone.

Councillor "shocked" by 67-bay bus park in Athlone road plan

The development of a new 67-bay bus park for Bus Éireann in Athlone, as part of the upcoming Railway Field Road project, has been described by a local councillor as "a mistake" and "a real travesty for the town".

Cllr Louise Heavin called for the bus park element of the road project to be relocated, saying a green field site in the town centre was entirely unsuitable for such a facility.

"Realistically, we have waited 20 years to put a road across this field. I think we can wait another year to try to bring people together to get the best solution for our town," she said.

"If this goes ahead, the first thing that people will see when they come into Athlone is a massive bus park."

While her fellow councillors, and Westmeath County Council officials, agreed that bus parking was an inappropriate use for the site, they were adamant that the plan must proceed as it is if the road is to be developed.

Council management pointed out that Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) was the owner of the land in question and had insisted that the new bus parking be located at the Railway Field, next to Southern Station Road.

Construction work on the Railway Field Road project, which has long been earmarked as a solution to traffic congestion in the town, is finally expected to start this October.

The road, between the Crescent junction and St Vincent's Care Centre, will be routed through part of the land which makes up the existing Bus Éireann maintenance depot and bus park, across from the town's bus station.

The first phase of the project will involve new paving and fencing for bus parking at the Railway Field, beside the maintenance depot. Once this is in use, the construction of the new road is then due to begin.

Cllr Heavin, who was elected as Athlone's first Green Party councillor in 2019, told a recent council meeting that she got her first look at the Railway Field Road plans last month and was "shocked" by what she saw.

"My background is as an architect, I also have experience in planning, and I was really shocked to see that there's going to be a 67-bay bus park right in the centre of our town," she said.

"I think it's a hugely unsuitable location for such a facility. We're taking a field that has been green the entire history of Athlone, with a little water course in it, and we are putting concrete or tarmac over it for a bus park.

"I think we need to be writing to CIE and asking, can we please revisit this? Can we find a more suitable location for this bus park, and use this land for something that would be far more valuable to our town?

"I would reference projects in Dublin where they have made this mistake decades ago and are now trying to deal with it. The likes of Broadstone (in Phibsborough), and whatnot. We shouldn't be making those mistakes now, in 2021."

Louise Heavin pictured alongside councillors Liam McDaniel and Aengus O'Rourke during a pre-pandemic council meeting.

Cllr Aengus O'Rourke said the council had been writing to CIE for years about this road project, with very little progress.

"Writing letters to CIE? You might as well be throwing them into the Railway Field, to be honest with you," said Cllr O'Rourke.

"I would do nothing now that would hold up this project. This project must proceed, we're committed to it, we're invested in it, and the town is holding its breath, in many ways, for it to get underway."

Cllr Frankie Keena said he understood the new bus parking would cost "€1 million of taxpayers' money," and he felt the site would be better suited to a hotel.

He asked if there was any way the road could be developed first, before any changes were made at the bus depot site, but council Director of Services Barry Kehoe said that would not be possible.

"CIE need the new storage, and new parking space for buses, before they can give (land) to us to construct the road," said Mr Kehoe, who has been involved in talks with CIE about the project for many years.

"In fairness to CIE, this is their property. It's private property. We don't have an aspiration to own this depot, or the adjacent field. It's a matter for CIE as to when this field is developed.

"We see this (new bus parking) as a temporary use of the land. We hope that, in time, CIE will see fit to move the bus maintenance depot and bus storage facility to a site that would be more appropriate, on the outskirts of the town, and that this site would be developed for maybe commercial and residential (uses).

"This site has huge potential to contribute more to the town. But the bottom line is if we don't proceed with this plan to provide the bus storage, at this location, we won't be building the road," said Mr Kehoe.

Cllr Heavin said the new bus parking was unlikely to be "temporary" once it was put in place.

"A temporary solution can become a permanent fixture very easily, and that's my real fear here. I don't want to let this go. I don't want to be one of the councillors who stood over letting that happen.

"I think it would be a real travesty for the town of Athlone to concrete over this area and have it just for bus parking."

Councillors O'Rourke, Keena, John Dolan, and Tom Farrell indicated that, while they were not happy with the location of the bus parking, they agreed the priority was the new road, and they didn't want to take any action now which might stall it.

Mr Kehoe said the council was currently finalising the detailed design and contract documents for the road project.

"We will be seeking the department's approval to go to the tender process now, and we hope to have a contractor on site in October," he said.

Concluding, Cllr Heavin said she was disappointed her fellow councillors were not prepared to take a stand against the location of the bus parking.

"I'm just disappointed that we feel we shouldn't be challenging it at this stage, and I'll be very saddened when it does happen.

"I would hope that CIE would move quickly to locate the bus depot somewhere else, but if it's still there in 20 years' time it will be really sad for the town," she commented.