Alastair Dalton: Scotland's roads set for giant road-building programmes
The almost-complete Queensferry Crossing may be huge, but it will be dwarfed by the scale of Scotland's next batch of major roads schemes.
At £1.35 billion, the Forth Road Bridge replacement has been described as the country’s biggest construction project for a generation.
But two road upgrades will each cost at least twice as much as the crossing - and the first is due to be completed in just eight years’ time.
Widening 80 miles of the A9 to dual carriageway between Perth and Inverness, and 86 miles of the A96 between Aberdeen and the Highland capital, will be on a different scale to the new bridge, at a currently-estimated £3 billion apiece.
With the finishing touches being made to the £500 million M8/M73/M74 upgrade, which saw Glasgow and Edinburgh finally connected by motorway in April, and the £745m Aberdeen bypass - or “western peripheral route” - scheduled to open this winter, the size of the Scottish Government’s road-building programme is giant.
The £8 billion total is breathtaking, even if some of the work has been awaited for decades.
It may also have been justified by the comparative popularity of road travel, but critics have argued that such significant improvements for drivers may just reinforce its dominance.
For the A9 and A96, it is true that the railway lines which largely follow them are also being upgraded - but the estimated combined cost of some £400m is a fraction of that being spent on the new dual carriageways.
In fact, the planned widening of an 11-mile section of the A82 beside Loch Lomond could cost almost as much, while spending that much on cycling might give ministers a glimmer of hope of getting anywhere near their “vision” of 10 per cent of journeys by bike.
But the costs of the dualling schemes could get bigger, and we learned a little more this week about how they will be funded.
Conservative MSP Jamie Greene, who has been wont to ask about transport scheme finances, tried to get economy secretary Keith Brown to open up on the subject on Wednesday.
The minister was noncommittal on the final cost, but said the A9 scheme was still on course to be completed in 2025, and the A96 five years later.
He said nothing had happened since the £3bn for the A9 was announced six years ago, but it remained a “ballpark figure” or “best guess” and would not become more “refined” until the cost of building the ten remaining sections was known.
However, interestingly, Mr Brown did confirm that if several of these got underway in the same year - as must be likely - the money would have to be found to pay for them.
He said “the commitment is there” to accommodate that into the Scottish Government’s budget, and it was “baked into the figures”.
Since a stretch south of Aviemore of just five miles, due to be completed by August, has cost £35m, that could mean a series of big bills all coming in at the same time.
In advance of that, large amounts of preparatory work has been underway over several years, but the Kincraig-Dalraddy section will be the first concrete proof that progress is being made.
However, with the SNP talking up dualling the A9 pretty much since coming to power a decade ago, and 2025 looming ever closer, it won’t be long until we get a far clearer picture of the road ahead - whether it will be finished on time and how much it will really cost.