THESSALONIKI – Getting the Kastania, Vermio section of the Egnatia Highway ready by the deadline is proving to be a major challenge. Efforts are now being concentrated on one of the most famous mountain passes in Greece, through which thousands of vehicles travel every day. This part of the project involves a struggle to master nature. The rugged pass in northern Greece, where snow, fog and numerous sharp curves above precipitous cliffs terrify inexperienced drivers, is a difficult part of the largest project currently under way in Greece. The Public Works Ministry, the construction companies, the government and the minister concerned, Vasso Papandreou, all want the 26 kilometers (16 miles) of road from Veria to Polymilo in Kozani ready by March 2004, when the Egnatia Highway is due to be handed over for use as a functioning road. One of the most impressive sections of the Egnatia Highway, this section may yet become the pride of those who worked on its planning, design and construction. What makes the Kastania stretch so special? «Its complexity, a complexity that must respond to exacting operating requirements and international standards,» says Sergios Lambropoulos, managing director of Egnatia Odos, the company constructing the highway. Of the 26 kilometers that start just outside the town of Veria, 9 km of the road comprise tunnels and bridges. Altogether, 15 twin tunnels and eight twin bridges have been built or are under construction. Compared to the existing 34km Polymilo-Veria road, the new section gains only 8 km, but the average transit time, with average speeds in excess of 100 kph and no bends in the road, will be halved. Alternating tunnels and bridges will connect the steep mountain slopes. More than 1,000 workers of different trades from Kozani, Veria and Thessaloniki turn up every day, rain or shine. They come in along service roads carved into the mountain to start work on the tunnels and bridges, some 600 meters below the existing, winding Kastania road. The tallest bridge of the lot is the B12. The longest tunnel is the T10, at 2,240 meters in length, and the shortest is the T6, of which one branch is just 130 meters long. Ever since a crash in an Austrian tunnel which resulted in multiple fatalities, tunnels have been built with safety exits for drivers and passengers. The long twin-bore tunnels have a communication lane which can accommodate a fire engine and electronic monitoring systems with cameras to record traffic, and drivers will be warned of traffic jams.