A9: the road that could lead to political paralysis

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ALEX Salmond was facing a parliamentary backlash last night over his controversial plans to invest in roads at the expense of trams.

The First Minister was accused of ditching projects where the Scottish National Party has little grassroots support and using the funds saved to favour schemes in his heartlands.

Mr Salmond has "deep misgivings" about the 600 million Edinburgh tram scheme and this is likely to be one of the first victims of the new government's transport agenda.

At the same time, the Executive's new transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, has announced plans to dual the A9 from Perth to Inverness at the same cost, 600 million. The road runs through three SNP constituencies.

Furious opposition MSPs have accused the SNP government of playing politics with transport and have vowed to defeat the Executive on trams.

Plans are being drawn up to table a series of amendments to the Executive's transport motion, which will go before the parliament tomorrow, giving Holyrood's support to the Edinburgh trams.

Negotiations are still going on behind the scenes but if Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the independent MSP Margo MacDonald support a pro-tram amendment, they would have enough votes to condemn the SNP government to defeat.

If the Conservatives, who support trams but have not yet decided to back a cross-party measure, came on board and supported a pro-tram amendment, the defeat for the government would be overwhelming.

If defeated in the first vote the government faced, it would represent a setback for Mr Salmond and his desire for a new, consensual style of ruling.

It would not force the government to change its position on trams, but it would make it difficult for the Executive to drive through plans so clearly against the will of parliament.

Even if Mr Salmond survives tomorrow's vote, other plans are being debated to defeat the SNP's budget bill, due in November, if the government refuses to fund the trams plan.

Dualling the A9 has long been an SNP transport priority, but it has never been clear how an SNP government would pay for the project, estimated at between 600 million and 1 billion. Now, though, Mr Salmond has signalled his unease with the 600 million Edinburgh tram scheme and the 600 million Edinburgh rail link.

If both were shelved, it would give the Executive more than enough money to fund the A9 dualling and maybe even to start upgrading the A96 from Inverness to Aberdeen.

Mr Stevenson announced the SNP's approach to the A9 when he said: "We are committed to a plan for dualling of the A9." He refused to put a timescale on the scheme, but he added that dualling all the way from Perth to Thurso was the long-term plan.

"That's what we want to achieve but, of course, we have to do these things by stages." he said. "My immediate priority is to make sure we focus on the areas of greatest need."

Opposition politicians were quick to suggest a political fix. Ms MacDonald, the independent MSP for the Lothians, said: "I think somewhere along the line the SNP have mastered the black arts. The signs were there at the tail-end of the last parliament when, for cheap political advantage, the trams project was dropped [by the SNP] and the Edinburgh airport rail link was disparaged.

"At the same time, comment was made about how much needed to be spent modernising infrastructure north of Perth; it is no coincidence."

David McLetchie, for the Tories, said: "The SNP policy is to concrete over the Highlands. This represents a massive diversion of investment from Edinburgh and the south-east into the north of Scotland and the Highlands. No-one should be under any illusion as to that.

"I think there is no doubt they have a transport policy geared towards the political needs and interests of the SNP."

Tavish Scott, of the Lib Dems, said there was a clear link between scrapping trams and dualling the A9. He said: "The SNP are obviously seeking to create some financial leeway to pay for their own manifesto commitments, of which they have many. People across Scotland will judge the SNP harshly if they cancel projects in one area to pay for projects in another."

And one Labour MSP, who did not want to be named, was even more direct. He said: "There are no votes for the SNP in Edinburgh; there are plenty in the north and north-east. Putting money into roads gets you votes."

An SNP spokesman insisted there was no political fix, saying:

"The A9 is Scotland's most dangerous road, with the highest road fatality rate in Scotland over the last five years, and so action to dual this road is a matter of public safety and is well overdue."

The A9 between Perth and Inverness runs through the constituencies of three SNP MSPs: Roseanna Cunningham in Perth, John Swinney in North Tayside, and Fergus Ewing in Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber.

Since 1999, 80 people have died on the route. Last year, 11 people were killed between Perth and Inverness.

Preparatory work has started to upgrade the worst accident blackspot, the Ballinluig junction, but campaigners say that this is not enough and work is needed on all non-dualled sections.

What they want to do: Transport is key area for new government



PLANS to dual the A9 and scrap Edinburgh's trams are just two aspects of wide-ranging transport measures pledged by the SNP in its election manifesto.

But while some are likely to win cross-party support, others, like downgrading the Edinburgh airport rail link, could also face resistance from opposition MSPs.

Ditching the tram and airport rail schemes - costed at a combined 1.2 billion - could pay for an A9 upgrade but could also help to boost further an ambitious rail expansion elsewhere. There could be extensive electrification of lines, the go-ahead to a second phase of expanding Waverley station in Edinburgh, and 300 million for more and faster trains on the existing network.

The SNP said track improvements could cut Inverness-Edinburgh journeys by 45 minutes, while adapting the line between the Central Belt and Aberdeen for tilting trains could reduce journeys by up to 30 minutes.

Although Virgin trains capable of tilting run as far north as Glasgow and Aberdeen, the lack of track modifications prevent them north of Carstairs.

The SNP has pledged to "give an early go-ahead" to a new Forth crossing, but it is undecided over a bridge or a tunnel.

In addition, "key improvements" would be made to other "nationally significant trunk routes", which include the A96 between Aberdeen and Inverness, and the A77 between Ayr and Stranraer.

While highly critical of a "toll tax" - road pricing - the SNP said it will attempt to cut road traffic by boosting flexible and home working, park-and-ride schemes and reducing the number of delivery lorries by combining loads.

The party said every public-sector body would be required to provide an action plan for flexible and home working for staff by November, and explain why it has been prevented from doing more. Cities would be required to devise a strategy for enhancing park-and-ride sites for buses and/or trains within the same timescale.

In Edinburgh, school pupils would receive free bus travel out of school hours to encourage them to use public transport and help reduce the "school run".

The SNP has also promised a ten-year Scottish road safety plan, which the Scottish Executive's Transport Scotland agency already had under way.

The party also plans an "early meeting" with ferry operators over new international routes from Scotland. It would seek a report by the end of the year into reducing ferry fares to the islands by introducing a "road equivalent tariff".