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SIC urged to reconsider Whalsay fixed link

WHALSAY Community Council is urging newly elected SIC councillors to reconsider an offer from a Norwegian company to build a fixed link tunnel connecting the island to the Shetland mainland.

In a letter addressed to the North Isles’ new councillors Duncan Simpson, Ryan Thomson and Alec Priest, along with candidates for the upcoming UK general election, the community council highlights a preliminary offer from Oslo-based firm Tunnel & Geo Consult AS (TGC).

It details a 5.4km-long tunnel, including around 3.5km of overland roads, fully equipped with portals and electricity, with an estimated cost of £76 million.

TGC states that its offer, dated December 2016, is “open for discussions and negotiations” with the SIC and estimates it would require 12 months of planning, design and pre-investigations followed by a three-year construction period. 

The tunnel would run between Dragon Ness on the north side of Dury Voe across to Marrister in Whalsay. 

Whalsay Community Council clerk Moira Dally’s letter recognises that, while TGC put forward a £76 million estimate, “we are not aware of what costs the SIC officials will add, so we estimate a rough total of £90 million”.

The small fishing community views a round-the-clock connection to the mainland as vital to its economic future.

Dally writes that the lay-down cost at the beginning of the project was 30 per cent (£23 million) with “nothing more to pay till the tunnel is open to traffic”, at which time a user toll would help with the estimated annual maintenance cost of £300,000-£500,000, along with loan repayments. 

The fares raised on the Whalsay ferry route last year amounted to just over £500,000 a year and, while it is uncertain how much of an increase in traffic volume there could be, 24-hour unrestricted access between islands in Faroe “saw traffic flow increase by up to 700 per cent”.

The letter adds: “We hope that you will give this offer serious consideration and will see the savings this proposal has for both the SIC and the Scottish Government.”

Michael Craigie of the SIC’s transport planning service said the principle of fixed links had been raised with transport and islands minister Humza Yousaf, who “has undertaken to further explore the matter” through a national transport strategy review and possibly a specific working group.

“The key point is that this now has Scottish Government attention and that is crucial to the funding of inter-island transport infrastructure and services,” Craigie said. “We will be working with councillors to continue the engagement with Scottish Government on an ongoing basis.”

Simpson, who is from Whalsay, said his position remained what it had been in his council manifesto – that “the community should decide, via a proper ballot, what they want. Then as their elected representatives we should push to enact their choice.”

He said: “If that choice turns out to be for a tunnel then it is excellent that the community council has been proactive on this front and I would be happy to work with all relevant parties to get it done.”

The letter also highlights a previous offer the SIC received to build a tunnel in Yell Sound, turned down on the advice of council officials in favour of building ferries and terminals.

Whalsay Community Council points to an estimate from the SINTEF Building and Infrastructure Company in Norway of between £26.9 million and £32.5 million for a 4.5km tunnel back in 2002.

It calculated expenditure on the Toft and Ulsta ferry terminals, along with running costs for ferries, leases and purchases, over the period from 2004 to 2006 of more than £35 million which – if those figures are verified – suggests the Yell Sound tunnel could effectively have recouped its costs in the space of three years.