More than half the main road to the Highlands should be upgraded to dual carriageway in less than a decade, according to Transport Minister Keith Brown.
The Scottish Government has been under pressure to speed up work to convert the stretch of the A9 between Perth and Inverness to dual carriageway, with campaigners highlighting the number of accidents and deaths on it.
A group of Free Church of Scotland ministers raised the issue when they met Mr Brown for talks in Edinburgh today (Friday).
The Government has committed to upgrade the A9 to dual carriageway by 2025 in a £3 billion project to convert 80 miles of the road.
Mr Brown said today that more than half the road is expected to be dualled by 2022.
The Free Church ministers said afterwards that they are disappointed with his response and urged him again to carry out the work “as quickly as possible”.
The ministers also called on the Government to standardise the speed limit for all HGVs to 50mph in an attempt to reduce tailbacks and to ban HGVs from overtaking on short stretches of dual carriageway on the road.
Rev Alasdair Macleod, of the Lochbroom and Coigach Free Church in Ullapool, a former civil engineer, said: “Any idea that there are engineering or planning obstacles that would delay dualling the A9 until 2025 is disingenuous to say the least.
“We are in open country not in built-up urban areas. Engineering projects like this are straightforward by comparison, especially in the Highlands section of the A9.
“This is not simply about the physical carnage evidenced almost daily on the A9 but the carnage caused to families, friends and communities. Lives are lost and lives are shattered too often on that road.”
Rev Colin Macleod, the moderator of Inverness, Lochaber and Ross Presbytery, said problems on the A9 are often caused by drivers becoming frustrated if they cannot pass slower-moving vehicles such as lorries.
While the Scottish Government plans to put average-speed cameras along the road, Rev Macleod suggested: “In our eyes, average-speed cameras over a 136-mile stretch with a 40mph restriction in many parts for HGVs will lead to more frustration, more accidents and more funerals.
“We have truckers in our congregations and communities telling us this is going to be an absolute nightmare. Cameras on a section or two might be an option but certainly not on the full route from Dunblane to Inverness.
“As a short-term solution, the Scottish Government could standardise the speed limit for all HGVs to 50mph to reduce the frequency and severity of tailbacks in the single-carriageway sections, as well as banning HGVs from overtaking in the short dual-carriageway stretches.
“But ultimately it is the dualling of the A9 that will be the measure that saves the most lives, and we plead with the Scottish Government to make this happen as quickly as possible.”
Mr Brown said dualling the entire stretch of the road between Perth and Inverness by 2025 would be “very challenging when you consider the design and statutory procedures that must be completed”.
The Transport Minister said: “The A9 passes through areas which are breathtaking and hugely important in terms of wildlife and landscape, not to mention people’s homes.
“The suggestion that we can somehow ignore these procedures and not consult people who stand to be affected by the upgrading work is of course not possible. We are legally bound to examine the possible impacts of the programme on the environment and have already published the Strategic Environmental Assessment for the route for consultation.”
He described some of the challenges involved in the project.
“We are dealing with internationally environmentally designated sites; rock cuttings; building new bridges and widening existing major bridges; public utilities; dealing with the close proximity of the Highland mainline railway; and there are currently over 100 junctions that must be incorporated to provide access to adjacent property and communities.”
The Scottish Government expects “to have over half of the dualling completed by 2022”.
Mr Brown said: “Some very complex and demanding challenges undoubtedly lie ahead but given our track record on other major projects, we are confident of delivery on time and on budget.
“In the meantime we want to do all that we can to prevent serious accidents. The A9 Safety Group has produced a package of measures to improve road safety by tackling poor driving behaviour and will continue to work together to address issues such as driver frustration and developing an education campaign on overtaking manoeuvres.”