Highland councillors are seeking an urgent meeting with the transport secretary Michael Matheson in a bid to secure the future of the Corran Ferry on the west coast.
Councillors have been told the service was at a critical point and an urgent decision was needed “as a delay in making a strategic decision to invest or transfer the service could result in service failure”.
There has been concern over the provision of the life-line ferry service for some years, with the need for a bigger vessel and supporting infrastructure, and longer term, a fixed link in the form of a bridge or tunnel.
With the council under significant budget pressure, funding support will be needed from the Scottish Government for the recovery beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.
Councillors have been told that, after a considerable amount of work and careful consideration, a letter had been sent to Mr Matheson seeking approval to form a working group with officers from Transport Scotland regarding the possibility of transferring over responsibility of the Corran ferry service.
Highland Council are proposing that a working group would align a plan of work that would fully consider the method of future delivery.
Councillor Trish Robertson, chairwoman of the economy and infrastructure committee, said: “We wrote asking for a working group to be set up so we could move forward and the next level of detailed dialogue on the future of the service could begin.
“It is disappointing not to receive a more positive response to this request, so the committee agreed that we write to requesting a meeting with the cabinet secretary early next year and continue to lobby for an improved position.”
Members felt that there was a lack of recognition from the Scottish Government regarding the significance of the lifeline socio-economic dependant Corran Ferry service that links the fragile communities of Fort William, Ardgour, Sunart, Ardnamurchan, Moidart, Morar, and Morvern.
The service is the busiest single vessel route in Scotland carrying over 260,000 cars each year and is also of national strategic importance connecting with the ferry network via the Lochaline – Fishnish route and meeting the island needs on the Isle of Mull.
Local Councillor and chairman of the Lochaber Committee Andrew Baxter said: “There appears to be a lack of recognition that this is a strategically important service that has a wider impact than servicing the local communities.
“At the moment we are relying on a backup vessel which is over 50 years old while the normal ferry gets it annual service.
“This is an urgent issue that has a very strong socio-economic impact. The investment required will be significant, so we need to press for further engagement with the minister and Transport Scotland as a priority.”
Fellow Lochaber councillor Alan Henderson, chairman of the Communities and Place Committee, added: “Highland Council is now at a point where a critical decision will need to be made as a delay in making a strategic decision to invest and retain the service in house or transfer responsibilities to Transport Scotland could result in service failure.
“Large capital spending will be required for new replacement vessels and the supporting Infrastructure to future proof the sustainability and viability of the service.”
The council said the next steps will include the Corran Ferry project seeking to procure a naval architect early next year to establish a statement of requirement specification and design for new vessels.
The timescale for completion of the new vessels and slipways is approximately five years away.
The project will also be looking to procure an external source to undertake a detailed socio-economic report on the critical importance of the ferry.
Transport Scotland has been contacted for comment.