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New First Minister John Swinney could speed up dualling the A9 between Inverness and Perth says Alex Salmond

By Neil MacPhail

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Former First Minister Alex Salmond said that John Swinney coming to power at Holyrood could signal new hope that dualling the A9 could be restored quickly to a priority project.

Mr Salmond today gave evidence to the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee at Holyrood which is investigating why the £3 billion project was allowed to fall so far behind schedule.

At one point he declared it was a matter of "integrity and honour" for the Scottish Government to complete the dualling as a priority.

He told committee convener Jackson Carlaw he hoped that Mr Swinney would be "anxious to redeem" the 2011 commitment and added: "It is a matter of principle, a matter of integrity and a matter of honour."

Mr Salmon, now leader of the Alba party, said that he and former cabinet colleagues Mr Swinney, Alex Neil and Jim Mather were all on board with the original 2025 dualling target and believed it could be achieved as part of their Infrastructure Investment Plan (IIP).

He said that during his seven years as First Minister he was never told by anyone that the commitment could not be met, and he now felt very strongly about the original pledge being kept.

He said that people with “nous” and “heft” could get the project back on track and even suggested that his former colleague Mr Neil, no longer a member of the government, could be one such person.

Mr Neil, who had responsibility for roads in 2011 when the SNP made a commitment to upgrade more than 80 miles of single carriageway, has already told the committee that suggestions it could take until 2050 to complete the dualling were "totally unacceptable".

He said transport officials at the time assured him the project could be completed by 2025.

The government has seen increasing calls from campaigners to urgently complete dualling of the 112-mile stretch between Perth and Inverness which claimed 13 lives last year – its highest death toll in 20 years.

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Thousands signed a petition launched by road safety campaigner Laura Hansler of Kincraig, urging ministers to deliver on their 2011 commitment for the dual carriageway and establish a national memorial to commemorate those who have lost their lives on the road.

Mr Salmond, who was SNP leader and First Minister until 2014, told the inquiry that a first commitment to dualling was made in 2007 with further commitments in 2008 and then in again in 2011, when the 2025 date was set.

Mr Salmond said his cabinet regarded it as "challenging but achievable" and even though it was the biggest project in Scotland’s history, it could be done within the government's capital budget.

He was asked: “Were you ever advised this date could not be met?” and he responded: “No, I was not.”

He told MSPs: "The A9 is a hugely important project to connect the Highlands to central Scotland."

Fergus Ewing, SNP MSP for Inverness and Nairn, asked Mr Salmond about progress to advance the dualling between 2011 and the end of his time as First Minister, and whether there were looming problems.

Mr Salmond replied: “Everything was on schedule, and the reason I know it was, is because Alex Neil would have told me if it wasn’t.”

And he told Mr Ewing: “I am sure John (Swinney) will redeem the commitment as quickly as possible.”

And when Mr Ewing asked him if the A9 project was achievable “should the First Minister so determine?” Mr Salmond answered ““Yes.”

Mr Carlaw asked for Mr Salmond’s thoughts on a memorial to the A9 dead and he replied: “I think if it was done properly and sensitively it would be worth doing.”

The citizen participation and public petitions committee last year began considering a petition lodged by Ms Hansler that called on ministers to fulfil their 2011 promise to fully dual the road between Perth and Inverness by 2025.

More than 300 people have died on the road since 1979.

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