SCOTLAND'S biggest construction project for decades has attracted only two potential bidders because of fears over cost increases and funding, The Scotsman has learned.
Ministers will have to choose between consortia involving the Scottish company Morrison Construction and its rival Balfour Beatty for the 2.3 billion new Forth road bridge.
The two groups have been formed from eight firms and eight consultants who confirmed their interest in the scheme – fewer than half the original 39 expressions of interest lodged.
Industry experts said other firms had been frightened off by potentially having to shoulder unexpected cost increases in the giant fixed-price contract.
They also said doubts remained about the Scottish Government's ability to pay for the bridge, which will be publicly rather than privately funded.
MSPs have agreed to pay the winning bidder up to 10 million towards tendering costs if the project is scrapped.
The new crossing is required because of main-cable corrosion on the existing road bridge, which could force traffic restrictions if repairs are unsuccessful.
By early December, the Scottish Government's Transport Scotland agency is due to invite firms to tender, with bids to be returned in a year.
A spokeswoman said yesterday: "We were pleased to receive submissions from eight top UK, European and worldwide contractors backed up by a similar number of world-class consultants. This is a clear sign there is real enthusiasm in the marketplace. These organisations have consolidated into two consortia, each to bring very extensive international experience to the competition."
German firm Hochtief confirmed it had formed a joint venture with Morrison Construction, ACS of Spain and American Bridge of Pennsylvania. Hochtief's past work has included the Oresund bridge-tunnel between Sweden and Denmark.
The group will compete with Forthspan, comprising Morgan Est, BAM Nuttall, Balfour Beatty and Vinci Construction Grands Projets, which announced its interest in July.
Alan Watt, chief executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, said: "We are not surprised companies have joined together because of the risk of bidding for a fixed-priced contract of this magnitude."
Fenella Mason, a construction lawyer at Edinburgh law firm Burness, said there were also concerns about funding. She said: "Firms are still left worrying about where the money is coming from. The decision to underwrite the bidding costs was too little, too late."
Des McNulty, Labour's transport spokesman, warned that having only two bidders would make it more difficult to ensure the cost was value for money. He said: "There is a danger one could pull out, and we cannot be left with Hobson's choice."
'TOLLS ARE NOT THE ANSWER'
TOLLS would make a negligible contribution to repaying the cost of the new 2.3 billion Forth crossing, the head of the project revealed to business leaders yesterday.
John Howison, the Forth Replacement Crossing's interim project director, told an Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting: "We did quite a lot of toll modelling. There is a limit to how much you can collect from tolls, so they really do not start to pay for the cost of the bridge."
The SNP-controlled Scottish Government abolished tolls on the Forth Road Bridge last year and has pledged that the new crossing will be toll-free.