A Whalsay tunnel would most likely cost £84 million and take nine years to plan and complete, councillors learned today. However, a budget of £112 million should be set until some of the uncertainties are fathomed out, such as the nature of the rock to be drilled and blasted.
The small group of councillors and officials set up to scour Europe for tunnel funding now has one month, until 30th June, to turn the idea into a realistic alternative to continuing with ferries for another generation.
A crucial date will come the week before when it meets Scottish finance secretary John Swinney on 21st June. The shopping list for the SNP minister will include seeking not just government backing and funding for a fixed link but negotiating for the 63.7 per cent subsidy provided for the Whalsay ferries to be put towards the tunnel instead.
The law in Scotland will also need to be changed to allow tolls to be charged to help pay for the tunnel, as is done in Norway, Iceland and Faroe – which is currently planning two more privately funded subsea tunnels to replace ferries.
The council may have to give Scottish government ministers and officials a quick lesson on subsea tunnelling because the Whalsay one would be the first in the country.
Contrary to expectation there was only a small presence of around eight Whalsay people and a few others at the Town Hall to hear the three-and-a-half hours of presentations at the special meeting of the infrastructure committee today, including talks from five Norwegians.
Councillors were relieved that an estimated cost and timeframe had finally been agreed by all at a meeting yesterday between Norwegian tunnelling experts, British consultants and council officials. In recent months figures as divergent as £35 million and £134 million have been argued over.
Councillor Betty Fullerton said it was impossible for members to make decisions with so much confused information being heaped upon them.
The inclusion this time around of expertise from the Norwegian Public Roads Authority has helped stabilise the predictions, drawing on its vast experience as the body responsible for all Norway’s roads and tunnels, including 27 subsea tunnels so far.
It is now agreed that the proposed tunnel would be 5.5-6 kilometres long, running from Forra Dale in Lunnasting to Marrister in Whalsay. It could cost as little as £74 million but £84 million is more likely and £112 million is the recommended budget.
The steepest gradient for traffic would be 8 per cent as it passes under Dragon Ness and the tunnel would have at least 40 metres of rock between it and the sea above it.
The experts agree that a lead-in time of 4-5 years would be needed to develop the project, which would include 2-3 years to negotiate buying the land at either end of the tunnel. Construction would take 3.5-4 years.
New roads measuring 2.5 kilometres would be needed plus upgrades to another 2.5 kilometres of existing roads.
Councillor Jonathan Wills called for “really rigorous politics-free” cost comparisons between ferries and a tunnel after pointing out that the running costs now being suggested for a tunnel, of £285,000 a year, were one-tenth of those of the ferries.
He said nobody should feel bad that despite all the recent work the council was back where it started with a worst-case estimate close to the £111 million put forward by council officials in February for a 7.1 kilometre tunnel.
He called for figures to be produced showing the difference in the amount of fuel that would be burned by ferries and by vehicles using a tunnel and for information on how the ailing ferry terminals could be made to last up to 10 years if a tunnel is built.
Mrs Fullerton and others asked questions about shaving costs by reducing the width of the tunnel to a single lane with passing places or controlled by traffic lights. But Norway has not built any subsea tunnels that narrow and Mr Craigie said it was unlikely to be acceptable under Scottish construction standards.
Councillor Josie Simpson, the Whalsay-resident councillor, pleaded for a final decision to be made at the Full Council meeting on 30th June. “This has rumbled along too long now,” he said.
Fellow North Isles councillor Laura Baisley agreed, expressing vexation that the Whalsay community had been “put through the mill” again since the tunnel option was revived after the split over whether or not to move the ferry terminal to North Voe.
Councillor Andrew Hughson felt the chances of raising external funding, given the economic climate, were very slim no matter how desirable a tunnel might be. He said it was disingenuous of the council to “dangle a carrot” at the Whalsay folk when the tunnel idea had been brought up again just as a diversion from the bitter wrangling over the ferry terminal sites.
However, councillor Allison Duncan thought the council might find some ready money from the expected £2-3 million or more a year it could earn from the Total gas plant.