A massive project to upgrade a key stretch of the A96 Aberdeen to Inverness road has taken a step forward.
Plans are taking shape for the dualling of a 29-mile-section of the route between Auldearn and Fochabers, which will improve motorists’ safety and reduce journey times.
Transport Scotland yesterday announced that it had whittled the number of bidders on the £50million contract down to four.
Renowned design consultancy organisations will now tender their proposals for the scheme, and the contract is expected to be awarded this spring.
Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, Keith Brown, said that once the decision was taken, design work would “step up a gear”.
He added: “The breadth of interest from the industry is testament to the importance of this major infrastructure project.
“When this contract is awarded, design work for the western section will step up a gear with route option assessment plans getting underway.
“This contract will provide the successful bidders with steady work for years to come and it will be a significant boost for the local and national economy.”
The firms vying for the contract are AECOM Limited, and joint ventures between Amey and Arup, CH2M and Fairhurst and Mott MacDonald and Grontmij.
Moray Economic Partnership chairman John Cowe said that the future of the region’s trade could depend on planners selecting a beneficial route.
Mr Cowe said: “Everybody is eager to see what the preferred route will be, and we’re keen that the work gets going as soon as possible.
“We would like to see the Elgin part of it done first, and have the project expand from there.
“The main idea is to get goods in and out of the area. Moray is Scotland’s larder and anything that can help get goods to customers quicker is a benefit.”
Campaigners have formed the Forres A96 Dualling Action Group with aims to ensure that transport chiefs select a prudent route.
Members fear some of the suggested options could cripple Moray’s income by bypassing its main towns.
A £30million design contract for the first stage of the programme at Nairn was awarded last June and includes the long-awaited creation of a bypass around the town.