Frustration is mounting in the north-east at the Scottish Government’s controversial new stance on future dualling of the whole length of the A96 between Aberdeen and Inverness.
The long-promised upgrade of the busy road now depends on a review that includes a climate-compatibility assessment.
But this will be no quick report – it could be a year before the outcome is known.
The Scottish Government should pull out all the stops to accelerate the timescales for this review and provide much-needed certainty to communities throughout the north.”
Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce policy and marketing director Ryan Crighton warned the region’s businesses cannot be left in the dark for another year.
Improved connectivity along the route had been sought persistently by the north-east business community for some time, he said.
Mr Crighton added: “Given the growing uncertainty around the delivery of the project, the chamber recently wrote to Finance Secretary Kate Forbes requesting clarity on the timetable for the long-awaited scheme.
“The need to meet our net-zero commitments has rightly spurred significant debate around how we invest in infrastructure.
“The A96, however, is widely recognised as not fit-for-purpose.
“Despite improved rail connections over the route in recent years, many businesses and individuals continue to rely on the road as their primary option to travel and get goods to market.
“Upgrades to this vital artery must be delivered to improve safety, reduce journey times and support the growth ambitions of the north-east and the Highlands.”
He continued: “Crucially, businesses in the region can’t be left in the dark for yet another year, with the review of the project’s future currently not due to report until the end of 2022.
“The Scottish Government should pull out all the stops to accelerate the timescales for this review and provide much-needed certainty to communities throughout the north.
“Regardless of any final decision on full dualling, it’s clear the road requires a significant package of enhancements, including key bypasses.
“The Scottish Government must commit to delivering these key improvements by the original 2030 deadline.”
Drivers have been frustrated for decades by long delays on the busy route, which was once dubbed Scotland’s most dangerous road.
In 1989, The Press and Journal launched the “End the Carnage – Spend the Cash” campaign, demanding major improvements to the A96.
Recent hope full dualling was in sight was put in doubt following the power-sharing deal between the SNP and the Greens.
Their draft shared-policy programme published at the end of August says the two parties will maintain “distinct positions” on the dualling of the A96.
The document adds there is to be a transport-enhancements programme on the route, which will include dualling from Inverness to Nairn, and bypasses for Nairn, Keith, Elgin and Inverurie.
It goes on to say the current plan is to fully dual the road, but there is to be a “transparent, evidence-based review to include a climate-compatibility assessment to assess direct and indirect impacts on the climate and the environment”.
North-east Conservative MSP Liam Kerr has accused the SNP of “decision paralysis”.
He said the government had promised for years it would fully dual the A96.
‘Tenterhooks for too long’
The MSP added: “It has been hanging over communities across the north-east for decades.
“Residents, businesses, heritage groups and landowners have been left on tenterhooks for too long.
“Their own decisions have been delayed as the can has been kicked down the road repeatedly by the SNP.
“This latest bout of decision paralysis does not bode well for future infrastructure development.”
Mr Kerr continued: “Businesses have told us this affects their future employment forecasts. Safety is also a major factor.
“It is my belief a solution can be found that acknowledges promises made, and delivers for everyone in the north-east.
“We need a road network that is fit for the broad mix of travel and freight solutions we all want to use.
“To that end, in the new year we will meet stakeholders to determine the best way forward.
‘Look at this in the whole’
“It is my hope that Transport Scotland and the SNP will listen to the wide mix of views on dualling, specification and upgrading. This needs to happen as early as possible in this parliament.”
But Greens’ north-east MSP Maggie Chapman has said it is unviable to fully dual the A96 for environmental reasons.
She said there were “clear areas where there does need to be some work done for safety purposes” – but also urged the government to “take a step back and look at this in the whole”.
Ms Chapman added: “We made our position in our manifesto clear and, given the commitments from the Scottish Government to undertake climate-impact assessments on these kinds of projects, I think it’s going to be very clear that it actually isn’t viable to dual the whole way.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t perhaps tackle specific issues of safety or of congestion, but I think there are ways other than building roads everywhere that allow us to increase connectivity and increase viable public-transport options.”
Not many people in the north-east transport industry seem to share Ms Chapman’s views on what the future A96 should look like.
People in all the towns and surrounding villages within the A96 corridor have suffered enough.”
Aberdeen haulier Colin Lawson, of Colin Lawson Transport, said dualling of the whole road had to happen urgently for numerous reasons.
Mr Lawson added: “People in all the towns and surrounding villages within the A96 corridor have suffered enough.
“It has become one of the worst trunk roads in the UK.”
The businessman said vehicles were often forced to slow to 20mph-25mph on the congested route.
He also highlighted that a shortage of laybys leads to buses being unable to pull off the carriageway to pick up or drop off passengers. This adds to traffic build-up and also creates serious road-safety issues.
Mr Lawson went on: “The north-east offers so much to visiting tourists but the A96 is torture to drive on.
“The delays, congestion, safety issues, volume of traffic and frustrated drivers wouldn’t encourage anyone to travel north.
“Central Scotland has been so lucky with its extensions of motorways and dual carriageways.
“Industry in that area clearly benefits from the road infrastructure – maybe if the politicians were to visit the north of Scotland more frequently, they would experience the utter frustration the A96 offers.”
Jason Moir, managing director of Dyce Carriers, would also like see all of the A96 dualled.
Mr Moir added: “The whisky, textile, food and engineering companies would all benefit greatly from this happening.
“And accidents should be greatly reduced, due to trucks and caravans not holding up cars.”
Martin Reid, director of Scotland and Northern Ireland for the Road Haulage Association, said: “The A96 is a key freight route which allows the industry to provide vital lifeline services.
“The planned dualling would not only help the cost and service levels of those moving goods but also improve the emissions from the vehicles using the route by reducing the need for the stop-start element that is an inevitable by-product of congestion.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said Holyrood was committed to delivering improvements for the north and north-east along the A96 corridor.
He added: “We will take forward an enhancements programme that improves connectivity between surrounding towns, tackles congestion, and addresses safety and environmental issues.
“Alongside that, we will carry out a transparent evidence-based review of the A96 corridor which will report by the end of 2022.
“That is sensible good governance for a major investment of that level.
“The situation is very clear. The commitment remains to address those issues and the dualling aspect is subject to the review.
“We remain committed to making much-needed improvements on the A96.
“Development work has already been undertaken that will not go to waste.”