The first stage of long-awaited plans to dual the entire A96 from Inverness to Aberdeen officially got under way yesterday.
Drilling work has started on the section of the key commuter route between the Highland capital and Nairn, including the Nairn bypass.
It was revealed last week that commuters would face traffic restrictions for more than four months as the ground investigations are carried out.
Transport chiefs said yesterday that only six of more than 650 drilling locations would cause disruption on the existing A96, however.
The project is the first stage of the Scottish Government’s plans to dual the entire A96 by 2030, with the preferred design having been identified and the draft orders expected to be published later this year.
It will include 18 miles of off-carriageway routes for cyclists and pedestrians, including a new link between Inverness Retail Park and Nairn.
Archaeological, geophysical and metal detecting surveys are to be carried out as part of the work, including a survey of the site of the 1645 Battle of Auldearn, which is close to the route of the new road.
Infrastructure Secretary Keith Brown said: “We are committed to dualling the whole of the A96 which links the northern cities of Inverness and Aberdeen.
“The work on this road scheme is moving apace with draft orders expected to be published later this year.
“Having recently let locals and road users see proposed changes to the preferred option for this scheme, we are now stepping up the work with ground investigations taking place along the route to help inform the final design.
“The work is essential but we want to avoid impact on road users where we can, so I am pleased the vast majority, over 99%, of the ground investigation work will take place away from the A96, ensuring the need for traffic management is kept to an absolute minimum.”
Mr Brown added that the £50million design for the 29-mile western section between Hardmuir and Fochabers would be awarded in the spring, with four engineering consultancies in the running.
“With these plans for upgrading the route between Scotland’s two most northerly cities and our ambitious plans to dual the A9, we are working to connect Scotland’s cities, bringing safer and more reliable journeys for anyone travelling on these two major trunk roads,” he said.