Transport Minister Keith Brown yesterday blamed the Edinburgh trams project for pot-holed roads in the Highlands.
He said the controversial decision to spend £776million on the capital’s single track tram system, which opens in a few days’ time, meant money was not available for road works.
Mr Brown made the remarks at Holyrood after being challenged by Highland Conservative MSP Jamie McGrigor.
His comments were seized upon by campaigners in the north, who said motorists were being “short-changed” at the expense of projects in the central belt.
Stewart Maclean, of the A82 Partnership, said upgrading the road network would cost a fraction of the bill for the trams project – but “would have a massive economic impact on the Highlands and would save lives”.
Mr McGrigor raised the issue at the Scottish Parliament, asking Mr Brown: “Does the minister share my constituents’ concerns about the poor condition and potholed state of many local roads which is damaging to cars and dangerous to motorcyclists and can give tourists a bad impression?
“Does he believe that enough is being done to address concerns?”
Mr Brown said the Scottish Government had spent more than £336million on maintaining and improving trunk roads in the north, but the upkeep of local roads was the responsibility of councils which were under “financial pressure”.
The minister added: “The member is right to say that we can always do more – that is true for both the trunk road network and local roads.
“On the issue of resources, which is at the root of this issue, the pressure on public finances was not helped by voting for around £776million to be spent on trams in Edinburgh rather than on road works around the country.”
Later Mr McGrigor said he believed people would think the minister was “talking through his hat”.
He added: “He cannot hide behind this old chestnut that is the Edinburgh trams forever.
“It all comes down to priorities and not enough money is being put aside to deal with potholes.”
However, north politicians and road campaigners said they suspected the tram project – which was approved before the SNP came to power – were partly to blame.
Mr Maclean said: “A fraction of the money that has been expended on the central belt, on everything from the new Forth Road Bridge to the Edinburgh trams, the M74 and the electrification of the railways, would have made a significant difference to the roads in the Highlands, which have been neglected for generations.
“Our roads are in a terrible state when you compare them with very good motorway-quality links elsewhere.
“We need to make our roads fit for the 21st century, which would have a massive economic impact on the Highlands and would save lives.”
Energy Minister Fergus Ewing, Inverness and Nairn, said he had been strongly opposed to spending the money on the trams.
He added: “I was the SNP transport spokesman at the time and argued strongly against as I didn’t think it represented value for money.
“When we became the administration, we sought to scrap it, but the LibDems, Labour and the Tories wanted to continue with it and you can only spend your pennies on one thing. I always argued that it would be better spent in the Highlands.”
Fort William councillor Andrew Baxter said the Highlands were being “short changed” by the Scottish Government.
“We need £150million to bring our roads back to a decent standard and at the moment we are only spending something like £15million a year on them,” he said.
“I wonder whether people in Edinburgh would put up with the uneven surfaces and potholes that we have to put up with here.”