Macedonia has been building its road links in the wake of the Balkan wars and with an eye to future European integration. Adrian Greeman reports.
Few places make the importance of the civil engineer clearer than Macedonia, one of the component nations of the old Yugoslavia. Though less wartorn then some of its neighbours, this tiny, two million strong nation between Serbia and Greece would face a very bleak future without the road building projects currently under way.
As it is, a number of motorway upgrading programmes, funded by a mixture of grants and loans from the European Community, the World Bank and the USA, are pumping much needed funds into the economy as well as improving access to areas with potential for development.
Funding from overseas is vital. The country's e55M ($58M) road income, derived mainly from vehicle taxes, is not enough to keep up with much-needed maintenance of its 3,385km network - including 900km of national highway and two European corridors - let alone expand.
Asip Useini, director of the Fund for National & Regional Roads in the capital Skopje, argues that further integration with Europe is crucial for the economy. 'It is a matter of survival.'
The task is not a hopeless one.
The country has excellent wine and other agriculture potential in its central and southern region. An ongoing study by US consultant Louis Berger shows enormous possibilities for a once thriving tourist industry, which now runs at about 20% of 1990 levels.
Most of the current projects emerged from the 1999 Stability Pact, which offered the long term prospect of European integration, new regional security and an avowed aim to spread democracy. Other developments of sometimes Byzantine complexity included the Stabilisation Association Process of the European Union, NATO and the Partnership for Peace and other aid sources such as USAID.
Projects concentrate on the inter-regional links offered by the two European corridors. Corridor 8 runs east-west linking Albania and the Adriatic to Bulgaria and the Black Sea, while Corridor 10 is part the E75 road from Athens to Salzburg.
For the EU, the north-south route is of more direct importance, linking Europe's southernmost full member Greece to its centre, says the European Agency for Reconstruction's infrastructure head in Macedonia, Jean Valsesia.
This route also needs much less to be done, since 124km of its 176km length is already dual two-lane motorway.
On top of that, the EU recently completed work to upgrade the border crossings into Greece at Bogorodica and Kremenica in the south and Blace, on the road north from Skopje into Kosovo.
Three main projects have been carried out or are under way on the route. First is a now complete e10M, 5.4km long, southernmost link, funded by PHARE, the European fund for reconstruction, and the Macedonian government. Second is a 15.8km section tied to successive annual budgets, also funded by PHARE. Finally, there is a much longer section of 43km.
This last section will be more complex since it runs through a mountain range. Cutting through a steep gorge, upgrading will need numerous tunnels and bridges. Though the EU has funded a design study, funding for construction is not forthcoming.
But according to Biljana Zdraveva, assistant minister at the Ministry of Transport & Communications, there could be money from a new Hellenic Plan for Reconstruction. 'We are optimistic there could be e50M available in grants and loans.'
Zdraveva would like to see improvements to the east-west route too. So far, only 84.4km of its 317km length is motorway, between Skopje and the town of Tetovo near Kosovo.
For the EU, this route is less critical because it connects countries which are not yet members. But the corridor is strategically significant, she says, and showed its worth particularly during the Kosovan war when the route north was blocked and much of the traffic entering the country came in from the Bulgarian side.
It is this eastern sector that needs most work. The section from the south of the country to Tetovo, though not motorway, has recently been upgraded and is in good condition, serving tourist and once industrial areas.
South of Tetovo, a recently built motorway section funded by the Macedonian government connects as far as the capital.
Work too has just started on the first 13.5km of a 25.5km motorway bypass for Skopje, the e120M total being funded by the EIB, European Bank for Reconstruction & Development and the Macedonian government.
All these roads are tolled and, according to Zdraveva, that gives scope for further concessions. Straightforward government debt levels are considered to be close to the limit.
One of the most important routes will be between the central town of Veles and Prilip. This will provide a spur route, designated Corridor 10C, from the main E75 towards a second border crossing with northern Greece at Medzitlija, recently modernised with EU help.
A e2M transport investment study by Louis Berger's European division includes detailed design and tender documentation for this 72.6km route and for a final 20km of reconstruction further south towards the border from Bitola. Investment required would be e150M, says Zdraveva.
This upgraded route would also provide an alternative link for traffic to the main Corridor 8.