Keith Findlay takes a look at the long-awaited Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route as the project nears completion.
The final countdown to the completion of the £1 billion bypass around Aberdeen is cause for celebration for everyone living and working in the north-east.
While the project may have taken a little longer than expected, the extra wait for work to end is nothing compared to the decades it took to get the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR) plus dualling of the Balmedie-Tipperty section of the A90 under way.
But first let me explain the £1bn price tag, which may raise a few eyebrows. It could be higher.
The overall estimated project costs are officially £745m, which includes a contract worth about £530m to AWPR development consortium Aberdeen Roads.
Most of the total published cost is funded by Transport Scotland, supported by contributions from Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council. But AWPR costs have ballooned from what Transport Scotland is paying.
Taxpayers will not shell out a penny more but the main AWPR contractors have suffered hefty losses on the project.
Galliford Try subsidiary Morrison Construction and Balfour Beatty were left to complete the job after the collapse of a third consortium partner, Carillion, earlier this year.
Carillion’s crash came after a string of profit warnings and despite it securing key UK Government contracts.
Last July, it said a large chunk of an £845m write-down was for three UK projects, one of which was understood to be the bypass.
More than £130m was wiped off the value of Galliford Try earlier this year after it revealed plans to raise £150m of extra capital to help it absorb the extra costs of up to £40m it expected to have to fork out on the AWPR.
The group booked an exceptional charge of £25m towards its additional financial commitment in first-half results.
In May, Galliford Try said it had “experienced some further cost pressure” on the AWPR project, mainly from weather delays, which were likely to increase the exceptional charge in its full trading year.
The firm added: “The amount will depend upon progress recovered through the summer and is expected to be lower than the charge taken in the first half.”
Reporting “good progress” on the AWPR, with progressive handover of sections of road under way, the company said: “Practical completion of the project is anticipated this summer.”
Details of Galliford Try’s problems with the AWPR budget first emerged in May 2017 when it said two major infrastructure joint-venture projects accounted for a £78m shortfall in “legacy” contracts.
The company’s shares dived more than 9% after it said it was taking a “regrettable” hit following a financial review of the work.
It is believed the contracts involved Scotland’s two biggest infrastructure projects – the AWPR and the Queensferry Crossing over the Firth of Forth. Extra provision for the bypass and bridge are thought to have made up the lion’s share of a total £98m in one-off costs booked by Galliford Try in its 2016-17 trading year.
Weather-linked delays to work on the Queensferry Crossing and challenges posed by the north-east’s famous granite bedrock are understood to have led to the two schemes costing far more than expected.
The experience led Galliford Try to rule out bidding for large infrastructure jobs on fixed-price contracts in the future.
Balfour Beatty made a £44m provision in its 2017 accounts to cover extra costs linked to the AWPR.
Given the colossal hits to the contractors’ balance sheets and factoring in all the special provisions, the £1bn price tag starts to look a much more likely estimate of the total cost of the AWPR.
But for most people travelling to, from or through Aberdeen by road, it will probably still seem like good value for money.
The AWPR/Balmedie-Tipperty project involves nearly 19 miles of access roads, 25 miles of side roads, 36 miles of new dual carriageway, nearly 1,200 beams supporting 75 new bridges, 70 new culverts, two major river crossings, two wildlife crossings and a railway bridge.
It is one of the largest infrastructure projects in Europe and is expected to deliver enormous economic benefits for the north-east.
Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce chief executive Russell Borthwick said: “We are getting close now to the opening of the long-awaited AWPR.
“A fully operational road will be a huge boost to our area, with forecasts suggesting the economic benefit it will bring to the regional economy over the next three decades is in excess of £6bn and that it will enable the creation of 14,000 new jobs.”
VisitAberdeenshire chief executive Chris Foy said: “Over half of visitors to Aberdeenshire explore the region by road so the completion of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route/ Balmedie to Tipperty will help to deliver a much better-connected visitor experience by reducing journey times and improving connecting onward journeys from the airport and train station.
“The route developments will make travelling around the region much easier, especially improving access to Aberdeenshire’s northern attractions from the southern central belt area.”
It is predicted the bypass will slash journey times, with a typical trip from Stonehaven to Aberdeen International Airport during peak times expected to be cut in half to around 28 minutes.
Congestion in and around the city should be significantly eased due to the effective removal of long-haul traffic using Anderson Drive.
Aberdeen’s roads could also be safer because the volume of traffic will lessen in the city, while other benefits include lower air pollution and potential public transport improvements.
The project has also had negative consequences, including local job losses at Carillion, traffic disruption and, according to some businesses, the loss of trade due to route closures.
Transport Scotland has yet to confirm the final opening date for the bypass, which has been under construction since February 2015. It was initially expected to open before this summer but the date was moved back to sometime in autumn.
A temporary road order has been published, which will allow for the Balmedie to Tipperty section to fully open soon, meaning a return to normal speed limits and the removal of thousands of cones.
Six miles of dual carriageway will be opened between Balmedie and Bridgend, as well as improvements made to the existing route between Balmedie and Blackdog.
Richard Thomson, who represents Ellon and District for Aberdeenshire Council, said: “This is very good news and a real step forward for the project.
“Having the remaining restrictions lifted will be a great benefit to everyone and heralds another major milestone in the overall delivery of the AWPR.”
Fellow ward councillor Isobel Davidson said: “The disruption has gone on for much longer than originally proposed so we will all be relieved when the road finally opens.”
A four-mile stretch of the AWPR between Parkhill, near Dyce, and Blackdog welcomed its first vehicles on June 27.
It was a major milestone in the history of a project plagued by setbacks and bitter legal battles.
Politicians said the opening was a “landmark day” for the north-east while taxi drivers, business owners and commuters all toasted the long-awaited development.
Press and Journal reporter Tamsin Ross made the journey from Parkhill to Blackdog along the AWPR section in just five minutes and measured the time taken to return via the old road, past Bridge of Don, as 15 to 20 minutes.
For a long time it was feared the bypass project may never happen, even after former first minister Jack McConnell announced in 2003 that it was going ahead. The SNP at the time dismissed it as an election ploy leading up to the Holyrood elections a few months later but ironically it was the first SNP government under Alex Salmond that gave the AWPR final approval six years later.
It took nearly another decade to travel from that point to last month’s hugely symbolic opening of at least part of the bypass.
According to Transport Scotland, the completed route will have an immediate economic impact.
It says within five years of completion the food and beverages industry will grow sales by 1% and reduce costs by 5% as a result of the AWPR.
Non-food manufacturing, retailing, tourism and road haulage are among other sectors expected to enjoy significant benefits.
Having the remaining restrictions lifted will be a great benefit to everyone