Exclusive:A9 dualling: Three mega contracts to speed up completion being considered by ministers
Completion of the mammoth A9 dualling project between Inverness and Perth could be accelerated by grouping the remaining eight sections into three privately-funded construction contracts, ministers are understood to be considering.
Streamlining the remainder of the multi-billion pound scheme could also make it more attractive to building contractors, industry sources have told Scotland on Sunday.
It follows transport minister Fiona Hyslop telling a roads industry event in Glasgow last week that “work to determine the most suitable procurement options for the remaining sections of the A9 dualling is now well advanced” and she expected an update to be provided “in the coming weeks”.
It is understood consideration is being given to a small number of public-private partnerships (PPPs) for the rest of the work, financed by the private sector and repaid over the length of the contracts, such as 30 years.
Ministers finally admitted in February their long-standing pledge to complete one of Scotland’s biggest-ever projects by 2025 would not be met. It is now expected to be finished after 2030.
Only two new sections of dual carriageway, totalling 11 miles, have been built since the SNP made its 2025 pledge 12 years ago, with some 70 miles remaining.
The project is officially estimated to cost £3 billion at 2008 prices, or some £4.7 billion now, and Ms Hyslop said more than £450 million had been spent to date. But the Scottish Conservatives claimed that completion at rate of progress would take more than 100 years.
The next stretch, six miles between Tomatin and Moy, near Inverness, will not be opened until 2027, with three shortlisted bidders being announced on Tuesday. It follows the competition being restaged after the sole original bid was rejected as not being value for money.
The dualling project’s key aims include improving safety, with all but one of the 13 deaths on the road between Inverness and Perth last year happening on single carriageway sections, in the highest fatality toll since 2010. So far this year, there have been two deaths – a driver at Dalmagarry, between Tomatin and Moy, and a pedestrian in Perth.
One roads industry source said: "Contractors are beginning to align themselves with possible joint venture partners around a rumour that it will be three separate PPPs (public-private partnerships), in addition to the Tomatin to Moy section.
“I don’t know if they will come to market concurrently or be phased over a number of years. I suspect the difficult Dunkeld section will be part of one of them, but with a consequently later start date whilst a technical solution and route is agreed.”
Another industry insider said firms funding, building and maintaining the road would cost more than Scottish Government-financed contracts. They said: “Whether there’s interest in PPP projects of this type remains to be seen, particularly given current market conditions.
“I suspect the logistics of maintaining the very rural middle section for 30 years after completion may also put some off.
“If the interest is there, the tenders are likely to be on the high side, costing far more than traditional design and build contracts in the long term.
“Regardless, completion before 2035 seems very unlikely at this stage, with several years of work ahead before shovels hit the ground.”
Neil Greig, the Scotland-based adviser to motoring group IAM RoadSmart and a member of the official A9 Safety Group, said: “The project is supposed to be a national priority and yet the processes and decision-making involved appear glacial.
“As autumn passes into another long cold Highland winter we are still waiting for a final announcement from the Scottish Government on their long-term plan for this critical route.”
Scottish Conservatives transport spokesperson Graham Simpson predicted completion before 2035 was “very unlikely”. The MSP said: “It’s a shocking betrayal of local communities and others who depend on this route.
"Lives are being endangered and journeys made more difficult by the SNP-Green Government’s failure. However they go about funding it or drawing up the contracts, people are crying out for them to get this long-overdue work underway.”
Inverness and Nairn SNP MSP Fergus Ewing said it was crucial the new contracts did not involve contractors bearing the entire risk, and called for the orders to also incorporate agreed work to dual sections of the A96 east of Inverness.
Caithness and Sutherland Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat MP said: “The SNP’s history of broken promises on dualling the A9 has verged on a sad and dangerous joke, so let’s just hope that contract wrangling doesn’t delay this any further.”
However, Scottish Greens transport spokesperson Mark Ruskell said: “The pledge to fully dual the A9 was made over a decade ago in very different circumstances.
“Improving safety on the A9 has to be the number one priority. That means looking seriously again at the urgent, targeted and effective changes which deliver a safe road now rather than billions spent on a bigger, faster road years from now.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Ministers are committed to dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness and work is continuing across the route. Parliament will be updated on the programme for completing the remaining sections in the coming weeks.”
They said different contractual approaches were being considered “to determine the most suitable procurement options”. These included publicly-funded design and build contracts, like the most recently dualled section, between Luncarty and Birnam in 2021, and a smaller number of larger public-private partnership contracts similar to those used on the Aberdeen western peripheral route.
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