A MAJORITY of well above 90 per cent of those attending an online event on Saturday indicated their support for tunnels connecting Yell, Unst, Whalsay and Bressay even if a toll similar to the current ferry fares would be charged.
Around 150 people tuned into the two hour event streamed live on Facebook and YouTube and hosted by isles MP Alistair Carmichael and Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart.
Dubbed as Tunnel Vision, the event was advertised as the start of a vital conversation “about the future of our islands”, and to “work together and decide exactly what fixed links can mean for Shetland”.
The meeting heard from the chair of the Shetland transport partnership ZetTrans, councillor Ryan Thomson, who described the council’s position as ‘Catch 22’ in that fixed links were clearly an aspiration but deemed unaffordable for the local authority.
He said no local authority should ever be required to undertake an infrastructure project of such a size alone due to the risks involved, and added that it was for central government, either at Holyrood or Westminster, to support Shetland’s fixed links aspirations.
Tunnelling expert Andy Sloan confirmed that constructing tunnels to Shetland’s four larger islands was technically feasible, long-term environmentally advantageous, and once constructed would have a lifespan of up to 200 years.
He said tunnels would encourage younger generations to move to the islands, improve social mobility and ensure that remote communities have access to the same opportunities as those in more urban areas.
The advantages must be weighed against the permanent changes that such links will bring to the ‘sense of place’, he added.
The meeting also heard from pupils of the Whalsay and Mid Yell primary schools, who had submitted a number of questions to the panel.
Ahead of the Q&A session, Sigurd Lamhauge from the Faroese company Landverk explained how Faroe had connected all major islands with the capital Torshavn via an ever-growing tunnel network.
Work is underway towards the construction of a fifth tunnel, which at 26 kilometres is the longest so far. It will connect the southernmost island of Sudoroy with Sandoy.
Lamhauge explained that tunnels had significantly cut down travelling times between islands, enabled people to commute to the capital, had turned the island group into one labour market and had slowed down depopulation in the outer islands.
He said the cost of building tunnels were in the region of £20 million per kilometre but warned that construction was a long drawn-out process and added that the whole process – from obtaining consents, permissions and finance to finally building it – could well take between 10 and 20 years.
Lamhauge said that initially the Faroese authorities had charged toll prices set at the level of ferry fares but these have come down over time as the amount of traffic through the tunnels rose, and they “should be abolished soon”.
When asked by Carmichael if tolls would be acceptable on any future Shetland tunnel network, well above 90 per cent of those participating in the poll answered with yes.
After the meeting, Beatrice Wishart said: “We had a fantastic event opening a conversation on fixed links in Shetland.
“It was disappointing that we couldn’t hold this event in person due to Covid-19, but nonetheless there was a great deal of interest, excellent questions and comments on what the future of island communities could look like.
“I would like to thank the speakers for their informative presentations, all the contributors and attendees, with a special shout-out to the young contributors from the isles’ schools.
“They are the people who will be impacted the most on any inter-island travel decisions. The event will be available to watch online again soon.”
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