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Central/Eastern Europe: EU Plans Solutions To Transport Problems

Warsaw, 13 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian truck driver Lavrenti Mashurik criss-crosses Poland several times a month, jockeying his big long-distance TIR truck along narrow, bumpy, pot-holed roads that he has to share with horses, bicycles and tiny under-powered Polish Fiats. He says there's only one way to improve the situation on Polish roads.

"In order for it to be better, you'd need for all Europe to put its money together and build one road from Brest to Frankfurt, a wide autobahn . . . and all the problems would go away."

That's exactly what European planners have in mind. The European Union has mapped out an ambitious plan of roads, railway lines, airports, seaports and river ports to link all the countries in an eventual united Europe.

The plans call for investment by Central and East European countries of a whopping $82 billion between now and the year 2015.

Four of the nine priority Trans-European Transport Corridors planned by the European Union lead through Poland, a fact that adds urgency to the government's plans to upgrade the country's disastrous roads.

Kazimierz Przelomski, principal banker in Poland for the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), which is funding many road-building plans, emphasizes the importance of Poland for all of Europe.

"Definitely it is important because of the geographical location of Poland, its proximity to Germany and transit route for Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. The size of Poland and the significance for the Nordic countries is evident if one looks at the map."

As the European Union expands eastward, good transportation in Central and Eastern Europe will be vital.

As Neil Kinnock, the European Commissioner for Transport Policy put it recently: "Borders cannot open properly and goods and people will not move freely, unless the roads, railways, airports and ports of Central and Eastern Europe are functioning effectively."

In 1994, Poland unveiled an ambitious plan to build 2,600 kilometers of new motorways over the next 10 to 15 years, at a cost of $8 billion.

But after four years, the result is that only 6.5 kilometers of motorways have actually been built. Andrzej Urbanik, president of the Polish government's Agency for Construction and Operation of Highways, admits "it means nothing."

Despite this bad record, Urbanik calls "feasible" his agency's new plans to build 100 kilometers of highways per year for the next 15 years, beginning next year. Construction of roads and highways in Poland is dramatically underfunded. In 1996, the roads directorate received from the government only one-fifth as much money as it had gotten 11 years earlier.

Wieslaw Kwiecien, chief advisor to the General Directorate of Public Roads, says roads are losing the competition for public funds to more pressing needs like pensions, health care and education.

Recently the Polish government became the last post-Communist government to introduce a fuel tax that is intended to fund road improvement and construction. But in fact, only a minuscule portion (about five percent) of fuel tax income is allocated for that purpose.

The Polish government's 1994 plans called for new highways to be built by private investors who would be given concessions to charge tolls to recapture their investment.

To date, as Urbanik admits, "not a single meter" has been built under this scheme, and many are beginning to wonder whether Poland has taken the right approach. Increasingly there are calls for direct investment by the Polish government.

William Pfeifer, program director for the Gdansk Transport Company SA, a consortium taking part in Poland's highway program, warned recently that his country could drop the project unless the government agrees to share the construction cost.

"The challenge is whether the government is willing to commit money for the next two or three years or whether the project will be put on hold," Pfeifer said.

Foreign lenders and the companies involved in Poland's highway projects point to the example of Hungary, where the government has invested directly in a highway project that was funded mostly by private investors. Przelomski at the EBRD says perhaps Poland should consider the same formula.

It's clear the government doesn't now have the huge amount of money that will be needed, and Poland's road and highway planners are looking to the European Union's so-called pre-accession aid that will help candidate countries bring their infrastructure up to Western European levels.

Polish highway planners clearly understand that good connections with the European highway network are an important condition for EU membership. And in this, Poland falls behind other candidate countries. Prague, Budapest, Bratislava and Ljubljana already have good links, but Warsaw is separated from the West by 400 kilometers of narrow, bad roads.

With NATO membership on the calendar for Poland next April, Urbanik says Poland has extra incentive to speed up its highway building.

"And I think it's also from the strategic point of view. Next spring probably the official access of Poland to NATO will take place and then for strategic reasons we also need good roads."

(This is part two of two stories on CEE Transport.)