THE A9 stretches from Dunblane to the northernmost town on this island, Thurso. As the longest road in Scotland, it is our nation’s backbone.

The condition of the road isn’t just a rural, Highland problem; it is of national importance.

That’s precisely why the SNP promised to dual the road. Akin to building the new Queensferry Crossing, dualling the A9 was heralded as a bold promise by an ambitious government.

Almost 12 years ago, in December 2011, the Scottish Government set out plans to dual the single carriageway between Perth and Inverness. It was divided into 11 sections, with a total cost of £3 billion and, critically, a completion date of 2025.

The Queensferry Crossing is old news – it was completed five years ago. In sharp contrast, we are two years short of the original deadline to dual the A9 and only two of the 11 sections have been completed. While the Queensferry Crossing graces SNP leaflets as a symbol of success, the same cannot be said of this important road.

READ MORE: SNP police investigation costs outweigh 'missing' £600,000

Now, before I go any further, I know that there is similar frustration with other stretches of road. In my own patch, the A82 and A87 also feature highly in constituency correspondence, especially considering the horrendous levels of congestion in Fort William. Too many lives have been lost on these roads too, and indeed on other Scottish roads.

But, with the Scottish Parliament considering the A9 this week and recent news reports about progress on the road, I wanted to emphasise again the urgency of dualling the A9.

This week, as normal, I drove from my Highland home to Holyrood. I had to detour at Dunkeld because of an accident. I got stuck in a long line of cars trailing a lorry doing 50mph. Driving the A9 is a constant test of patience, waiting to see the signs which indicate the dual carriageway is only a few miles away.

It was an immense relief, as it always is, to reach the Broxden roundabout and take the exit for the gloriously wide, dualled M90 to Edinburgh.

Frustration is a small complaint for me to make however when the A9 has claimed far too many lives. Before we talk about the economic impact of dualling the A9, or even the frustration of driving the road, we must remember the families who are bereaved. I don’t think there is a Highland family who doesn’t feel a sense of fear and worry when they hear news of another accident.

Who will it be this time, we think with trepidation?

Last year, 13 people died on the A9 between Perth and Inverness. Last month, an 18-year-old lost his life. The number of fatalities should be a cause for national grief. Many were local residents, people who have driven the road for years.

The A9 is many Highlanders’ commute to work, our route to the shops and our means of meeting friends. I’m not saying it’s the only road – I’ve already cited the A82, for example. But it remains a national gateway for people, goods and services. It connects north and south, bringing mutual benefit as Highland goods like food and drink are transported south.

Efforts have been made to quantify the economic benefits. Back in 2016, Transport Scotland concluded that there would be substantial benefits, ranging from additional tax income because more people could access employment opportunities, to lower prices because of a healthier economy.

Highland residents don’t need a comprehensive, official economic analysis to illustrate the value of dualling the A9 – they could list multiple benefits off the top of their head.

There have been blunt suggestions from certain quarters that continued investment in roads is contrary to our climate change ambitions. Transport is a significant contributor to our national emissions but net-zero policies should not penalise the Highlands.

It’s blatantly obvious that rural Scotland relies more heavily on car use, but rural Scotland should not disproportionately bear the brunt of Scotland’s transition to net zero.

Cracking down on cars and stopping all road projects, without substantial investment in public transport, will hinder efforts to bolster the population and invest in rural Scotland.

You might be able to cycle to your local shop in the centre of Glasgow, but I’d like to see you try in rural Scotland. There might be hourly buses – at worst – in the middle of Edinburgh. In some Highland communities, you’re lucky if you see one a day.

Between the emerging class of green lairds, the crackdown on fossil fuels for off-grid consumers without support to transition and urban-centric views of transport, there is legitimate worry that the Highlands has to go the extra mile (or 80) to compensate for slower progress in urban Scotland.

In that vein, any suggestion that dualling the A9 is incompatible with our climate change targets spectacularly fails to recognise the nature of the Highlands and islands.

The Scottish Government has a target to phase out new petrol and diesel cars and vans in the coming decade. It wants to see more of us going electric. If we are to achieve that, then those electric vehicles will need safe roads and infrastructure – that includes a safer (and more electrified) A9.

The First Minister, this week, said that there is a cast-iron guarantee to dualling the A9. I was heartened during the leadership contest to hear him time and again show his support to dualling the A9. He clearly understood both the urgency of the work, but also the fact that it was about lives and safety.

In Inverness, he said that one of his first actions would be to sit down with his finance secretary and ensure that the A9 was a priority.

To help him achieve that, we need to get serious about the new timetable and improved procurement. At a time of constrained budgets, we can’t let outdated, ineffective processes consume time and budget.

This week, the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), whose members work on some of the largest construction projects in Scotland and employ more than 30,000, commented on the A9 dualling programme.

It highlighted shortcomings more generally in large infrastructure procurement, alongside recommendations to accelerate the dualling of the A9. It suggested that there was only one bidder for the Tomatin to Moy section of the A9 because of the poor design of the procurement.

The CECA’s recommendations would be a good starting point for simplifying the process, attracting more tenders and kickstarting construction on the next stage.

The paper claims that the bespoke contract used to procure road projects is “regarded as a dated, unattractive anomaly by the market”. It calls on Transport Scotland to adopt best practice, like that used by the wider industry, which is “written in plain language and designed to stimulate, rather than frustrate, good management”.

During a period of high inflation and challenging budgets, we need to have a difficult conversation about our national priorities. Dualling the A9 is, by wide consensus, critical.

It’s about saving lives, investing in our future and laying the groundwork for the transition to net zero. We need to see a new timetable to dual the remaining sections – and we need better processes to ensure it happens.