Transport Secretary Michael Matheson says a review into the future of the A9 dualling programme is “crucial” but has been “misunderstood”.
He defended the consultation, insisting it would pave the way for the Scottish Government to “progress the remaining sections” of the upgrade between Perth and Inverness, rather than being about halting or delaying the scheme.
Concerns have been raised about the government’s commitment to the £3 billion dualling project since Transport Scotland said it would “take stock” of the impact of the pandemic and look at its financing.
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser wrote to Mr Matheson amid alarm about the review.
He said: “It would be a massive blow for those of us who have campaigned for the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness to be told that the project is either on hold or may face delays in reaching its targeted completion date.”
However, in a response released under freedom of information laws, Mr Matheson insisted earlier this month that the consultation actually underlined the government’s commitment to the project.
He said the “next steps” for the A9 dualling programme would be unveiled this summer, after a new procurement strategy has been drawn up.
Mr Matheson wrote: “We are engaging with stakeholders and the construction industry to help finalise a procurement strategy that will allow us to progress the remaining sections.
“We expect this process to conclude in summer 2021 when we will be able to provide an update on next steps towards delivery of this important programme.
“Contrary to some media reporting, which has unfortunately misunderstood the position, this market consultation is a very clear demonstration of our full commitment to the A9 dualling and our equally strong commitment to good governance and responsible use of public funds.”
This project is absolutely vital for the Highlands and Islands.”
Jamie Halcro Johnston
He added: “It is imperative that we continue to explore opportunities to take forward elements of the route as they become ready to construct, as we have recently confirmed.
“However, we must do so in a way that allows the market to deliver these complex schemes whilst managing impacts to the travelling public and providing good value for money.
“The ongoing engagement exercise is therefore crucial to our next stages of programming and will allow us to determine the most efficient delivery model for the programme.”
The first of 11 sections of A9 dualling, between Kincraig and Dalraddy, opened in 2017, with work under way on the second part between Luncarty and Pass of Birnam.
Transport Scotland recently announced that a procurement process had begun for a further six miles of dual carriageway, from Tomatin to Moy, worth £115m.
However, the Scottish Government’s latest infrastructure investment plan envisages just £328m being spent on the overall £3bn scheme between now and 2025/26.
This has fuelled doubts that the dualling work will be completed by the 2025 target date.
Jamie Halcro Johnston, the Scottish Conservative rural economy spokesman, said: “Despite my repeated questioning of both Nicola Sturgeon and the transport secretary in recent weeks, we’re still none the wiser over whether the promise to complete the dualling of the A9 by its 2025 target date will be met.
“It’s pretty clear that there are now real doubts over whether the SNP government will deliver this transport project on time, and their long-winded answers – answers hedged with qualifications and caveats – are intended merely to obscure that fact.
“This project is absolutely vital for the Highlands and Islands.
“But the SNP’s shoddy refusal to offer any real clarity on when it will be completed is a slap in the face to those local residents and local businesses likely to be forced to wait even longer for a fit-for-purpose road infrastructure.”
‘A further sign of our commitment’
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “Scottish ministers have repeatedly stated their commitment to dualling the A9 and we continue to make significant progress on the road between Perth and Inverness.
“We have already completed 7.5km of A9 dualling, 9.5km is currently being constructed and we have just commenced the procurement of nearly 10km.
“We also recently announced that Scottish ministers have given the go-ahead to complete the statutory procedures for four more schemes, totalling over 35km.
“We expect public local inquiry reports to be submitted for a further three schemes in the coming months and subject to positive decisions, this would pave the way for completing the statutory processes for approximately 92% of the programme.
“Given the challenges that the construction industry is facing, it is prudent to consult with them as key delivery partners, to ensure that any delivery strategy can make best use of the resources available and can deliver longer-term benefits for the communities along the A9 corridor.
“We are engaging with industry representatives to ensure that the remainder of the programme is delivered effectively and efficiently, balancing the considerable benefits of the programme against financial risk, any impacts on local communities and journey times.
“This market consultation, which is due to complete in summer 2021, is a further sign of our commitment to improving this vital route for our rural communities in a responsible way, boosting the economic connectivity between our cities even when the latest spending review cut the Scottish Government’s capital budget by over 5%.”