Egnatia Highway to change the way north

THESSALONIKI – Despite the delays, overcharging and ill luck that dog the country’s major roadworks, the new road map is finally taking shape. Monday’s opening of a new stretch of the Egnatia Highway from Polymylos in Kozani, to Veria is an indication of the importance these projects have for development, as well as of the failings of the Greek State. The new section, which replaces the notorious Kastania pass, is not quite complete, since large vehicles such as buses and trucks will not be able to use it until next spring, while the last two kilometers near Veria will be completed by a new contractor in early 2007. The cost escalation of the 26-kilometer stretch was typical of all public works in Greece. The project began in 1999 with a budget of 350 million euros, only to reach over 570 million. Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias’s commitment to complete the entire Egnatia Highway by 2008 and all the other main highways by 2012 presupposes a restriction on the interests of contractors and project designers who have been such a drain on the resources of a state that has proved ineffectual, and sometimes even a party, to the process. All the same, there were smiles all around at this week’s inauguration. In a climate of bipartisan consensus (also present were former PASOK ministers Costas Laliotis, Philippos Petsalnikos and Lazaros Lotidis), Souflias spoke of «a project of the utmost importance, the most complex roadwork carried out so far in Greece,» which he said would bring an end to the isolation of Western Macedonia and Epirus, help attract investment, and increase production and tourism. The technical specifications are indeed impressive. With 15 twin tunnels and six tall cable bridges, the new section of the Egnatia Highway links Polymylos in Kozani with Veria; that is, Western with Central Macedonia, which for many people is as important as the Rio-Antirio bridge link. It shortens the trip through the Kastania pass to 15 minutes, making it easier and safer. The dangerous bends in the Vermio road are now a thing of the past. Instead of what used to be 37 kilometers of what is one of the country’s worst roads (at an altitude of 1,600 meters, often with difficult weather conditions, such as frost and fog), drivers now sail along a modern motorway with telematic and security systems comparable to any in the Alps. The trip from Kozani to Thessaloniki is now reduced to 75-85 minutes, down from at least two hours. The new section, originally due to open at the end of last year, was built by the consortiums ATTIKAT-Pantechniki-J&P-TEGK (on the Polymylos-Lefkopetra section) and Aktor-Michaniki-Techniki Olympiaki-Korontzis (between Lefkopetra and Veria). As of next spring, a toll gate will open at the level of Polymylos. Toll fees have not yet been set, but the minister joked that it would «definitely be below 8 euros.» Souflias promised that the full 680 kilometers of the highway would be ready in 2008 at a total cost, including access routes, of 6.1 billion euros, of which 2.3 billion will come from European Union funds. By 2003, 442 kilometers (many of these presenting problems) were ready and this year another 50 have been added. Next spring, the Asprovalta diversion will be ready, and in the summer of 2005, the Nestos Bridge. This month calls for tenders for another 10 projects were issued, budgeted at 925.5 million euros. By the end of February, another six are scheduled to be called, with a budget of 323 million, and between July and September 2005, the final four at 252 million euros.