I thank colleagues across the chamber for supporting my motion and allowing the debate to take place.
I will start with a quote:
“Be warned—City Bypass is a nightmare today! Been on it for an hour so far”.
That palpable frustration, vented yesterday on Twitter, was from the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, Paul Wheelhouse MSP. I am pleased to report that I spotted Mr Wheelhouse in the chamber yesterday, so I know that he managed to escape the congestion on the bypass.
The future of the A720 city bypass, which is the key trunk road that serves our capital, is important not only to Edinburgh and the wider Lothian region, but to all of Scotland. I have been pressing the Government to improve the bypass since my election, and I will continue to do that.
As a Lothian MSP, I continue to be contacted—almost daily—by frustrated constituents and business people who face frequent delays when using the bypass to commute or transport goods, especially, but not exclusively, at peak times or when there has been an accident on the route. The Federation of Small Businesses has also voiced concerns over many years about the situation in Lothian.
Many drivers tell me that the tailbacks and traffic jams are becoming more regular. Indeed, some drivers tell me that they are choosing to drive through Edinburgh city itself rather than risk being stuck on the bypass, which adds to the pressures on local roads in the capital.
In late 2016, Inrix, the transport information company, identified the bypass as the most congested trunk road outside London, with four of the United Kingdom’s worst bottlenecks located on the route. It suggested that drivers faced the worst delays at the westbound section near Dreghorn barracks, and it predicted that bypass congestion would cost the economy as much as £2.8 billion by 2025. With Scotland’s economy facing sluggish economic growth over the next five years, the Parliament must take the issue extremely seriously. We cannot allow that cost to be incurred.
Transport Scotland’s transport model for Scotland uses 2014 as the base year for the total number of vehicles per day using our trunk roads, and it indicated that 78,000 vehicles used the city bypass west of the Dreghorn junction that year. The model predicts that that figure will grow by an extra 10,000 vehicles to 88,000 a day by 2022 and by a further 10,000 vehicles a day by 2032, with 102,000 vehicles a day using the bypass by 2037. In addition, the percentage of heavy goods vehicles using the bypass will also increase, and about 14,300 lorries and heavy goods vehicles will use the route each day by 2037 compared to the 2014 figure of about 9,400.
Constituents and businesses are rightly alarmed about those increased usage predictions, given that the road cannot cope with the current volume of vehicles using it. Furthermore, the projected increase may well be an underestimation of the number of extra vehicles that will use the route if Edinburgh, Midlothian, East Lothian and West Lothian continue to experience fast-growing populations and if new housing developments such as at Shawfair continue to appear along the route of the bypass.
Edinburgh and Lothian are the only parts of the Scottish economy that are growing. We are now the powerhouse of the Scottish economy. If we are to sustain that growth, we must invest in the infrastructure to allow areas to continue to attract businesses and inward investment in key sectors such as the life sciences, with Edinburgh’s BioQuarter, Queen Margaret University and the proposed film studio at Straiton located just off the bypass.
Gridlocked trunk roads create a bad impression on inward investors and those who want to visit our area. Edinburgh is the showcase for the whole country, and we need a modern and efficient transport infrastructure to ensure that that continues.
I am sure that, when the minister closes the debate, he will refer to the Scottish Government’s investment in the Sheriffhall roundabout. The final plans for the much-needed grade separation and flyover will be revealed sometime this year. I hope that he will be able to give a firmer timetable for that.
The introduction of grade separation at that notorious bottleneck is, of course, welcome, but it is only one action. Over many years, we have been campaigning for further action and more improvements. Commuters have faced such tailbacks for more than a decade, and they now want real action on the whole bypass.
It is vital that the Scottish Government receives the message from Lothian residents and businesses that, although the improvements at Sheriffhall are important, they are only one part of what needs to be done in a far broader long-term and co-ordinated programme of improvements to the bypass to ensure that traffic is kept moving in the decades ahead. That means looking at innovative solutions, assessing whether extra lanes will be needed, looking at the possible use of hard shoulders in some situations and utilising technology so that the bypass can become a smart motorway, as it should be.
It also means considering genuinely effective public transport options as an alternative to using cars. I regularly receive complaints about bus services in West Lothian, and it is clear that residents in that part of my region do not have much confidence in their bus services and therefore do not use the public transport that is available to them. That issue needs to be seriously considered.
In responses to written questions of mine, the minister has said that the Scottish Government is looking at further measures to improve traffic flow on the bypass and reduce congestion. However, beyond that, we have seen no further information. I hope that today we have an opportunity to start the debate and look towards how we can improve our bypass. I hope that the minister will also provide clear assurances that the Scottish Government recognises the strategic importance of the city bypass, considers that improving it is a national transport priority and is fully committed to ensuring that the trunk road is fit for purpose.
I am calling on the Scottish Government to undertake a feasibility study into widening the city bypass and to consider new options to address the growing and unacceptable congestion. That is what the Lothian residents and businesses that I represent deserve, and I will continue to press the Scottish Government on it.