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Albania highway: Making the first move

At first glance, building a 61km long motorway in a European country might not sound like much. But Albania’s first ever motorway scheme has many twists and turns. Over the next eight pages Alexandra Wynne reports from a scheme where the word “mountainous” is appropriate in more ways than one.

When a country is getting a new motorway, often it means an upgrade or addition to an existing network of highways. But the new highway traversing Albania from the Adriatic Sea to its north east border with Kosovo is a real first.

It will be the country’s first four-lane motorway and is by far the largest infrastructure project it has ever embarked on.

Along the full length of the 171km route from Durres to Morine is a 61km long central leg from Rrëshen to Kalimash. This chunk of the project has had many of its own firsts as contractors have had to work hard to meet the opening date scheduled for later this month.

A vital connection

The motorway will create a vital connection with Durres, which is considered to be the Balkans’ main port. The official line is that the new road will cut journey times from there to Kosovo from six hours to two.

But that only tells half the story. A substantial part of the existing Durres to Morine route meanders precariously, through dramatic mountainscapes. Uncomfortably close to the road are sheer drops down to the valley. These and numerous hairpin bends keep a tight rein on speed. In winter many parts are completely blocked.

Albanians close to the project told NCE that the six hour journey can become an even more painful 10 hour trip. Many prefer the alternative − despite visa issues − and take a detour eastwards through Macedonia to avoid the treacherous drive.

The 61km central section breaks down into three sections (see map). Which is just as well because there is a wealth of work being carried out simultaneously along the route to complete a medley of structures including an impressive 4.4km of 29 bridges, 5.5km of dual tube tunnel and 6.4km of retaining walls.

The route

Albania route

Bechtel-Enka joint venture is building the central leg which runs in complex 61km long stretch from Rrëshen to Kalimash.

The work breaks down into three sections, with the majority being carried out simultaneously to meet a tight two-year construction programme.

Albania motorway map

 

One person who appreciates the importance of the road is Ylli Gjoni. He is director of the project implementation team and deputy general director for client, Albania’s General Road Directorate, which represents the country’s Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Telecommunication.

“The idea for the project goes back a long way,” says Gjoni. “Even back to before the 1990s. But then it was only for a single carriageway and that was even ruled out as too expensive.”

An idea revisited

The project dates back to 1988 but was initially ruled out as too expensive. It was revisited in the mid-1990s following the country’s shift from Communist rule to becoming a democracy but faced more delays, particularly when the war in neighbouring Kosovo diverted attention in the late 1990s.

Eventually the World Bank became involved and provided the kick-start the scheme desperately needed when it agreed in 2002 to finance a feasibility study. The following year a joint venture between Mott MacDonald and Italian consultant Technique carried out a study for a single carriageway.

In 2004, the Albanian government decided to commission detailed designs for what would be the easiest portion − the stretch south west of Rrëshen and another stretching north from Kalimash.

In figures

5.5km

Length of the twin bore tunnel at Thirrë

1,858m

Height of Mount Runes where the terrain is so rough the design called for a 5.5km twin bore drill and blast tunnel

£44M

Direct economic benefit of motorway annually

2,000

Number of Albanians working on the motorway

£645M

Current estimated cost of the 61km section

 

The government introduced a road tax in 2005 to help pay for the scheme. The same year work began on a relatively easy section, 26km south west of the central portion, with the government enlisting the army to carry out earthworks. In 2006 a long period of discussions between the government and the World Bank followed. This led to the decision to increase capacity from a single to a dual carriageway.

The World Bank is now financing a portion leading to Rrëshen, where the 61km central leg is being paid for with money from the government and with loans from private investors and international banks. The government is mostly financing the portion north of Kalimash with a smaller contribution coming from Islamic Bank.

Challenging terrain and soaring costs

Despite early feasibility studies, nothing could fully prepare the team for what lay ahead. The ground varies dramatically from rock that is in small parts competent to that which is variable and frequently fractured or shattered.

The joint venture committed to a contract based on unit costs − fixed prices were calculated for each part of the work and then multiplied by the volume of work. Although unusual in Albania, Bechtel and Enka had experience of working this way and general road directorate deputy general director Ylli Gjoni says it was the only way to make the project work with such a short programme.

A project by Albanians for Albanians

Albania motorway tunnel

Big day: Albanians celebrate tunnel breakthrough

Of the 3,800 people working on the project about 50% are Albanian, while many of the rest comefrom Turkey. Native Albanian and Bechtel-Enka structural engineering supervisor for the projectErmir Gaci says it is one of the most important projects the country has ever embarked on.

“Something is changing in the Balkans, but we need new infrastructure. There are now a lot of other projects in Albania to improve power supply and infrastructure. It is having a great and positive impact on Albania.

“It’s the first dual carriageway in Albania and these mountains are an incredible area to build in.

“We’ve brought civilisation to this area − we’ve brought a change to culture and opportunities for jobs. At first it was difficult because you’re changing the way of life for those people who live here but within two months that started to change because people understood that our idea was to hire a lot of people from the area.

“Albanians believe this road will have a positive impact and will bring more tourists from Kosovo.”

 

But costs soared. Based on its experience of what it thought were similar schemes, Bechtel-Enka put an initial price tag on the work of about €420M (£365M). But in early 2007, the complexity of the project became apparent and the eventual cost looked to be closer to double that figure.

“My goal was a timely delivery and cost savings,” says Gjoni. “There was friction in the beginning and no one was confident that it would work. It was difficult to get everyone to understand the process of working together [to keep the costs down].

“What I am proud of is managing big contractors and big designers to produce something that is sustainable, and while subject to change, we now have running costs that are closer to €750M (£645M) − we’ve managed to save €100M (£86M).”

Building on a grander scale

Gjoni says it was during discussions with the World Bank that the government decided to build on a grander scale. The mountainous terrain and the fact much of the route is uncharted territory meant it would be virtually impossible to go back and widen the road later. “We decided that if we were going to do this, we would do it only once,” he says. So the project got an upgrade from a single carriageway to a dual carriageway.

“The key to this motorway is to alleviate poverty,” he adds. “There is an economic rationale behind it and it will have a direct economic benefit to Albanians and Kosovans from trade, development and tourism of €50M (£44M) a year − which is going to increase. It is being built with the expectation that it will be able to pay itself off in 10 years.”

Who’s who

  • Client Albania’s General Road Directorate, representing the country’s Ministry of Public Works Transport and Telecommunication
  • Main contractor Bechtel-Enka joint venture 50%/50%
  • Designer Egis Route (sections 1& 3 including tunnel), Italconsult and Scetauroute (section 2)
  • Supervising engineer (for client) Institut Gradevinarstva Hrvatske

 

The directorate awarded Bechtel the role of main contractor in an equal joint venture (JV) partnership with Turkish contractor Enka for the 61km central leg of the project in September 2006. The partnership was not a first as the firms had worked together on two other roads projects − one a 415km motorway in Romania and the other a 200km highway in Croatia.

The need to make the project start paying its way as soon as possible has dictated a new pressure for the project team. “It’s a two and a half year contract where normally this kind of project would take six years,” says Gjoni. “But Bechtel sold itself on this ability to manage itself and committed to that programme − in very challenging conditions.”

“We do lots of these kinds of highway jobs, like in Croatia, but the terrain is so different and the timescales are so tight, which makes this so much more complex and challenging,” says Bechtel-Enka prime contract manager Darren Mort.

Moving forward with gusto

So work started with gusto on site in May 2007, leaving just over two years to complete all the construction work to enable the whole 61km stretch to be open − at least as a single carriageway in each direction − later this month.

This central part of the route cuts through one of the poorest, most isolated parts of the country. The beautiful countryside is the backdrop to a predominantly agricultural community that is otherwise unspoilt, meaning little was previously known about the ground conditions. These ground conditions have been behind a wealth of challenges facing the team.

Albania googled

Capital Tirana’s colourful new building by fritviss

Capital Tirana’s colourful new building by fritviss

Port of Durres by F4bio

Port of Durres by F4bio

Rreshen’s Toma petrol station by edi_d

Rreshen’s Toma petrol station by edi_d

Reps rest stop by Ermal Macaj

Reps rest stop by Ermal Macaj

Kosovo border near Moraine by colonel340

Kosovo border near Moraine by colonel340

Albania highway: Making the first move

Readers' comments (2)

  • I worked in Vlore, Albania from 2002 to 2005, and drove frequently between Tirana and Vlore. The road from Tirana to Durres was a motorway, and some sections of the road between Durres and Vlore were dual carriageway. I was therefore puzzled by the references in this article to this scheme being Albania's first dual carriageway or motorway.

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  • I had the opportunity to drive on this road recently just a few days after the official opening. We approached from the Kosovo border. So many Kosovars wanted to see the new road that the border was backed up for 4 hours. Once we got accross the border we entered a stretch of new road that lasted a few miles. From then on it was alternating stretches of new and old road. Some of the bridges were very impressive! And the tunnel was great. But when you include the 4 hour delay at the border the drive from the Kosova border to Durres took over 9 hours. It's going to be a while before this road is really completed.

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