The Environment and Public Works Ministry is preparing to promote projects to be self-financed by the private sector worth billions of euros within 2005. After the underwater tunnel in Thessaloniki, for which five consortia have already submitted bids, Minister Giorgos Souflias is expediting the completion of procedures for three more projects so that by the middle of 2006 contracts will have been approved and work will under way. According to a schedule revealed last month by Souflias, the Thessaloniki tunnel will be followed by the Tripolis-Kalamata highway, the Vale of Tempe tunnels and the Ionian Highway. Concerning the latter, the famous «western route» linking Antirio with Ioannina, the ministry’s decision to go ahead with it is especially important. Just a few months ago, top ministry officials had hinted that the project could be scrapped due to a lack of resources (any sections constructed today are publicly financed) for the promotion of its direct competitor Route E65, which also ends in Ioannina via Thessaly. The «resurrection» of the Ionian Highway then, which according to the ministry’s schedule may be slated for construction by the end of next year, could be linked to reactions by people in western Greece, as well as from the construction consortium of the Harilaos Trikoupis Bridge linking Rio and Antirio, which noted serious dangers of devaluation for the project if the route linking it with Epirus was abandoned. Prior to the Ionian Highway, within the first half of 2005, the bidding process for the construction of the underwater tunnel in Thessaloniki will probably be completed. Also next year, the bidding for the construction of the section of the national highway between the Maliakos Gulf and Kleidi is to be completed. These are tunnels going through the Vale of Tempe and digressing from the current route. Provided procedures are not hampered by the objections typical in Greek projects, the contracts for the Tripolis-Kalamata road and the Ionian Highway are expected to be signed by the end of the month. The ministry hopes that the contract for the next project, the Corinth-Patras-Pirgos road will be validated by Parliament by May 2006. The road will be constructed along a new route closer to the mountains and away from the traditional coastal route, while its budget is projected at about 2 billion euros. The new route will be defined within January (geotechnical studies are already under way in four areas: Derveni, Eliki, Platanos and Panagopoula) and by May, the tender application forms will have been forwarded to the construction consortia interested, so that by the end of 2005 a contractor can be chosen. The last project in chronological order will be the central Greece Route E65, linking the Athens-Thessaloniki national highway at Lamia with the Egnatia Highway at the Panaghia junction close to Metsovo. The relevant studies are progressing, but are not expected to «mature» before 2007. ‘Year of concessions’ The government’s decision to brand 2005 «the year of concession contracts» stems from the lack of funds for projects to be constructed via public expenditure, and from the «positive experience» of the operation of the Attiki Odos and the Rio-Antirio bridge (despite significant objections over the cost of side work on the Athens ring road). However, yet to be examined are the toll costs to be imposed in order for any construction consortium to break even and for the project be profitable. This is an important consideration for people traveling from Athens to Epirus on the Ionian Highway, as they may have to pay high tolls, enjoying, however, speed, fuel economy and safety on their journey. A hypothetical, yet likely scenario sees the use of the Attiki Odos to Elefsina, the national road to Corinth, the new route to Patras, the Rio-Antirio bridge and finally the Ionian Highway adding to a total cost of tolls far exceeding 25 euros. The individual and jointly financed projects will not be affected by changes in the legal framework for concession agreements. This is because linking these projects with the changes in legislation would lead to delays in the start of their construction by at least three years. Officials from Souflias’s office pointed out that «commissioning contracts will be approved by Parliament anyway, so that the best possible monitoring takes place without changing the legislation.» The new framework, they added, will not be restricted to grand projects but will allow the state to place the construction and operation of projects with private parties across the board of public domain (regions, prefectures, municipalities), as well as products and services beyond the limits of construction projects. The draft law for public-private partnerships in project construction is expected by June 2005, Deputy Economy and Finance Minister Christos Folias said on Tuesday. Its main characteristic will be to enable the participation of small companies in projects across the country. This system will be applied to the construction of marinas, ski centers, hospitals, schools and water and drainage projects, plus others proposed by the private sector.