THE first day of a 20-week programme of major roadworks on the Kessock Bridge in Inverness left rush-hour commuters in nine-mile tailbacks.
The 32-year-old structure is the main link to the Highland capital from the Black Isle and northwards, but is now subject to a £13.2million upgrade.
One side of the one-kilometre-long bridge, used daily by around 33,000 vehicles, is closed throughout the project to resurface and repair the road, which is part of the A9 Perth to Thurso route.
Southbound peak-time drivers were left in traffic jams for up to an hour as they battled through a contraflow system during the beginning of the second phase of the project.
The first phase of the works were carried out last year and saw 1,000 fewer cars a day using the crossing as some commuters opted for alternative travel arrangement.
This time around they were again being urged to make use of the extra buses and train carriages being laid on, as well as car-sharing.
However, there were concerns about complacency after the success of last year, and these were realised with traffic jams stretching as far as one mile north of the Tore Roundabout, a total of nine miles from the bridge.
Patrick Johnston, 45, who commutes from Muir of Ord to Inverness, said: “We expected delays, but not to the extent we saw.
“I think more people decided to use cars this year than when the roadworks were being carried out last year.
“It is a pain, but hopefully things will settle down as the project progresses.”
Calum Galloway, BEAR Scotland’s Bridges Manager for the North West Unit, said: “A reduced speed limit of 30mph is in place from today to keep both road users and workers safe.
“We understand this will mean some delays for motorists as this is a very busy route and we urge the public to avoid unnecessary travel into the city centre and to consider using public transport, car sharing, cycling or walking where possible.
“A maximum southbound delay of up to 50 minutes was experienced during the morning peak today.
“This project is complex but will bring real long term benefits. The public was extremely patient during the first phase works and we hope for their continued support again this year.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The reduced speed limit is intended to keep bridge users and workers safe.
“We understand it will mean some delays for motorists and we urge the public to avoid unnecessary travel and to consider car sharing, cycling or walking where possible or the use of public transport. It is a complex job and will have long term benefits.”
Highland Council, the biggest employer in the Highlands, has been encouraging the hundreds of its staff who cross the bridge daily to consider options such as car-sharing, cycling, using the improved public transport services that are being provided, or adapting their working arrangements.
The council leader, Councillor Drew Hendry, said: “We welcome the major investment being made by the Scottish Government in maintaining the Kessock Bridge, which is such an important transport link in the Highlands.
“The opening of Conon Bridge railway station and improved public transport has persuaded many more people to use public transport instead of their car on a daily basis. This has been a welcome spin-off benefit.
“With 900 staff crossing the bridge daily en route to work, we can make a difference in relieving pressure on the bridge, especially at peak times.
“We are encouraging staff to consider public transport, lift-sharing or working from home or at an office near to their home that does not require crossing the bridge.
“We are extending our flexitime hours at the start and end of the day. All this should help to keep traffic moving and minimise disruption to business life and the delivery of key council services.”
The £13.2million project which began last year is expected to give the bridge, built in 1982, a new surface which will last for at least another 25 years.
Traffic is being restricted to 30mph on the crossing, with a 50mph limit imposed on the southbound dual carriageway from Tore roundabout.
A priority lane for buses and HGVs between Tore and the bridge will be used to smooth the flow of larger vehicles.
There will be additional pressure in Inverness city centre are the works continue, as Highland Council has had to extend a contract on flood alleviation works on a major road in the town, at Bank Street, which will cause further congestion.
Motorists driving in and around Inverness can access up to the minute journey time information at www.trafficscotland.org.