In a story given prominence by The National publication, Mr MacNeil said that the Abu Dhabi involvement in Hebridean transportation links could be “a game-changer” by providing inter-island tunnels within his constituency as well as one between Craignure in Mull and the mainland.
However, concerns have been expressed that talk of tunnels at this stage could divert attention away from the urgent need for ferry replacement in order to improve the reliability of existing services.
The routes between Barra-Eriskay and Berneray-Leverburgh are cited by Mr MacNeil as possible beneficiaries of Abu Dhabi investment in tunnels. Both are currently served by Caledonian MacBrayne ferries and a similar level of fares, in the form of tolls, would be charged for use of the tunnels.
Mr MacNeil was quoted after a meeting with the Mubadala Group whose deputy chief executive Waleed Al Mokarrab Al Muhairi, according to the MP, when told about the tunnel opportunity, exclaimed: “That’s it, we’re going to Scotland”.
The Abu Dhabi interest, according to Mr MacNeil could prove to be “a transformative step” in bringing tunnels to the west coast of Scotland. Others were more sceptical.
The subject forms part of a consultation on the Scottish Government’s transport strategy which closed last Friday with little apparent support for the tunnel option, but a great deal of emphasis on investment in ferries.
A recent survey on Mull found only 20 per cent support for a tunnel even if it was feasible.
Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull and Iona Ferry Commmittee, said: “Before we start thinking about tunnels under the sea, we need to fix the very urgent and fundamental problems with the ferry service”.
The outgoing leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Roddie Mackay, said that talking about tunnels at this juncture was “an unfortunate diversion when all the focus should be on the desperate state of our ferry services. Tunnels are not going to happen and we should concentrate on what is attainable”.
He added: “For example, the Scottish Government is currently clawing back £2.5 million from CalMac but won’t pay £700,000 to keep a mezzanine deck open. If Abu Dhabi or the MP can help solve that kind of problem, it would be very welcome”.
However, Mr MacNeil argued that it would be cheaper over a 25 year period to construct tunnels than to build and maintain ferries. He said it was time to realise that there were ways to connect islands other than ferries and that Mubadala would not be the only sovereign wealth fund interested in investing in tunnels, if the rate of return was right.
The Fund’s web-site states: “As a state-owned enterprise working at the forefront of Abu Dhabi’s efforts to drive economic growth across multiple sectors, Mubadala benefits from the long-term support of its sole shareholder, the government of Abu Dhabi”.
Mr MacNeil was quoted as saying: “They mentioned they were aware of plenty of opportunities in Scotland in offshore wind and when I told them the Scottish Government was also consulting on inter-island tunnels, the showed immediate interest. The deputy chief executive, Waleed Al Mokarrab Al Muhairi, said ‘that’s it, we are going to Scotland’.”