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Transport / Funding uncertainty over Westside road upgrade

Image © Google 2023

A PROPOSED road upgrade project in Shetland’s Westside – which could cost more than £9 million in capital – is likely to stand still until a “sustainable level” of borrowing can be found to fund it.

The road in question is the single track A971 between the West Burrafirth junction and Walls, which spans 4.2 kilometres.

It is ranked third on Shetland Islands Council’s strategic road network programme, behind Cullivoe and Levenwick. An upgrade came close to happening in the past but was postponed following a change in asset investment policy.

The project has been initiated mainly due to road safety; an increasing number of HGVs using the road means there are now signs of “significant deterioration”, while there is concern over the overrun areas alongside the road.

It ties in with an increase in aquaculture production in the Walls area, with Cooke for example landing more than 2,000 tonnes of salmon at the village’s pier, with a value of over £10 million, between January and September 2021.

A report due to be presented to Monday’s policy and resources committee meeting said there is also is the potential for a serious road accident at Murraster where the A971 road narrows from two lanes to single-track due to the inadequate visibility of oncoming vehicles.

The potential scope for the project ranges from the provision of overlay resurfacing throughout this length of the A971, to the construction of a new two-lane engineered road on a new alignment.

The preferred option at this stage is for a two-lane road on a new alignment between Murraster and Walls, which would improve safety and minimise future maintenance costs.

A safety check of the existing road was undertaken in June, and the provision of new warning signs and verge markers were identified as improvements that could be funded through existing budgets.

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The estimated £9.4 million spend on a new two-lane road would be spread out over seven years, and external funding would be investigated.

A strategic outline for the project has been developed and is due to be presented to Monday’s meeting.

It is ready to be taken to the next stage – an outline business case – but a report to councillors said there is a recommendation that work is not taken forward at this time until the financial situation is clearer.

The council is due to set its budget in March, and it is already warning of changes to services to reduce costs.

A warning has also been made that the estimated cost of the approved £5 million Cullivoe road upgrade has increased since it was given its sign off, while the proposed project to upgrade the A970 at Levenwick is similarly pricing higher.

The report to councillors said the SIC also has the ambition to invest in other programmes of capital spend, including schools and connectivity to the outer islands.

“There is the aspiration that external funding will at least partly fund these programmes; however, there is currently no certainty in that regard,” it added.

“Substantial borrowing may need to be funded by the council if our ambitions are to be met.”

The project’s strategic outline case will also be presented to a meeting of the full council on 22 February.

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