Funding a £130 million motorway project to ease a traffic bottleneck in Belfast remains a major challenge, Stormont's infrastructure minister has said.
Chris Hazzard reiterated his warning that the Brexit vote has placed a question mark over building the York Street Interchange as he formally accepted a recommendation from a public inquiry that the scheme should progress in principle.
The inquiry into the proposal to link the Westlink, M2 and M3 with construction of a new bridge and associated underpasses was held last November.
A recommendation from the inquiry chair to proceed was handed to Stormont in January.
Mr Hazzard, who has already expressed support for the scheme, has now endorsed the inquiry findings. That means preparatory work can proceed, so building work can commence once the funding has been found.
It was originally envisaged that around 40% of the build costs would be sourced from the European Union. However, the minister has claimed the UK's vote to leave the EU has cast serious doubt over that money.
While the Treasury has vowed to cover any EU funding shortfalls for projects signed off before Brexit, the next round of funding applications relevant to the York Street project does not open until 2018, so there is uncertainty whether it would be rubber stamped before the UK exits the Union.
Mr Hazzard said the project should be undertaken, along with a number of mitigation measures for adjacent residential areas, increased local community liaison and consideration of further provisions for cyclists.
The minister said the York Street project remained a "priority" and said he would work with Executive colleagues to try to source the funds needed.
"Plans to deliver the scheme are well advanced," he said.
"However, the £130 million funding remains a major challenge with a number of competing priorities across the Executive.
"The project could have attracted up to 40% EU funding, but since the referendum vote this funding opportunity is now in doubt. I will need to consider this project together with other priorities as part of my Budget 2017-21, however, the York Street Interchange remains a priority for me and I am committed to do all that I can to deliver the scheme within the current financial context, working with the Finance Minister and other Executive colleagues."
Giving the green light to the inquiry recommendations, the minister said: "This is an important step in the development of the interchange which is seeking to address the traffic delays at this heavily congested location.
"There is no doubt that a scheme of this scale represents a significant investment in our economy.
"By removing the traffic bottleneck, the new interchange will improve journey time reliability and road safety for motorists, including freight transport, and support the competitiveness of the Port of Belfast with improved links to the strategic road network."