Dublin opens Europe's longest city road tunnel

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The longest city road tunnel in Europe was formally opened in Dublin yesterday by the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, in an attempt to ease chronic traffic congestion.

The tunnel is designed to remove almost all large lorries from the city centre, cutting down the steadily worsening traffic jams which have become a feature of Dublin life.

Traffic in the Irish capital has been one of the thorniest problems generated by the Republic of Ireland's economic success, which has led to a huge commercial and business expansion and a new commuting culture.

"Irish people used to emigrate to Britain and the United States ... to work on great construction projects, from the London Underground to the trans-continental railway lines of North America, the Sydney Opera House or the motorways of England," Mr Ahern said.

"Today, as we face into the twenty-first century, we are building twenty-first century infrastructure, and world class infrastructure at that, in our own country, for our own people, with our own resources."

Dublin's docks are in the heart of the rapidly growing city, which means that ever-increasing numbers of lorries and other vehicles plough their way through the city centre, causing near gridlock at many times of the day. More than 6,000 trucks arrive at or leave Dublin port each day. The new tunnel is designed to whisk the vast majority of them underground from the port to the M50 motorway, a journey that currently takes at least half an hour on a route that passes through dozens of traffic lights. It is said the tunnel will cut this journey to just six minutes. At four and a half kilometres long, it is the biggest structural scheme in Ireland's history and the longest road tunnel in an urban area in Europe.

In an illustration of Ireland's growing international trade links, a public information campaign about the new facility will be launched not just in the Irish and English languages, but also in Polish, Russian, French, German, Spanish and Chinese.

Doubters point out that the M50 is already Ireland's busiest road and wonder whether it will cope with such a large new volume of traffic. But if the project works as planned, it could make a major difference to Dublin's transport and its quality of life. Thousands walked, jogged or ran through the tunnel in a charity event earlier this month.

Authorities say that diverting lorries from the city centre should make the streets safer and less congested for public transport, pedestrians and cyclists, as well as reducing noise and improving air quality.

Heavy goods vehicles and larger coaches will not be charged for using the tunnel. Cars and other vehicles will also use it, though they will have to pay tolls of €3-€12 (£2-£8), depending on the time of day.

Operated by a French multi-national, the tunnel has cost €750m. Since work began in 2001 it has employed 5,000 construction and engineering staff who worked 7.5 million man hours. Two million tons of rock and earth were shifted during its construction.

Although 40,000 trees and shrubs were planted around its entrances and exits, the tunnel's aesthetic appearance has not pleased everyone. A leading environmentalist, Frank McDonald, scathingly complained that its "cheap cladding" was reminiscent of "Monaghan chicken coops or mushroom tunnels".