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Frustration mounts with second-rate Vienna road corridor

"This is incompetence, this is an embarrassment, this makes no sense," says Peter Feith, managing partner of business and tax advisory firm Ernst and Young, gesturing at an intricate, multi-coloured map he had just drawn showing road connections between Bratislava and Vienna.
"There is not one good thing about this. It's the worst type of incompetence," he repeats. "I can say this, I am Austrian."
Feith is not the only one complaining about road travel in the area. Austrian and Slovak businessmen alike are frustrated and confused at Austria's apparent inability to build an adequate connection between Vienna and Bratislava, which at only 60 kilometres apart are two of Europe's most proximate capital cities. They say that overwhelmed border stations and a lack of decent highways on the Austrian side are major factors in preventing Vienna and Bratislava from becoming a dynamic corridor of commerce.


An amendment to the Customs Law may reduce line-ups at Slovak borders, which currently can stretch to eight hours.
photo: TASR

"This is incompetence, this is an embarrassment, this makes no sense," says Peter Feith, managing partner of business and tax advisory firm Ernst and Young, gesturing at an intricate, multi-coloured map he had just drawn showing road connections between Bratislava and Vienna.

"There is not one good thing about this. It's the worst type of incompetence," he repeats. "I can say this, I am Austrian."

Feith is not the only one complaining about road travel in the area. Austrian and Slovak businessmen alike are frustrated and confused at Austria's apparent inability to build an adequate connection between Vienna and Bratislava, which at only 60 kilometres apart are two of Europe's most proximate capital cities. They say that overwhelmed border stations and a lack of decent highways on the Austrian side are major factors in preventing Vienna and Bratislava from becoming a dynamic corridor of commerce.

"It is extraordinary to have two capital cities so close together without a major highway," agreed Ján Tóth, analyst at Dutch investment bank ING Barings, commenting on a problem that has had many business leaders perplexed for years.

"It's not good for anybody," intoned Feith. "It's not good for Austrians or Slovaks, not for anyone that does business in both countries. It especially hurts small and medium sized businesses that can't afford to have offices in both places."

Two years ago, two new border crossings were opened at Austria's Kittsee to supplement the lone crossing at Berg [both are several kilometres south of Berg, which is just west of Bratislava. The smaller of the two crossings is only for Slovak and EU citizens - ed. note]. But businessmen say the move only solved part of the problem. Large trucks are still required to pass through the Berg crossing and follow a roundabout path to Vienna. And while smaller vehicles usually find shorter lines at Kittsee, they will still not find a highway to Vienna after crossing the border.


Linking Vienna and Bratislava airports could solve border jams.
photo: Spectator archives

"There is a 20 kilometre stretch between Kittsee and the highway connecting Vienna to Budapest that needs to be made into a highway. If that were done it would take a car 40 minutes to get to Vienna and provide trucks with a reasonable route. As it stands, trucks have to travel 80 kilometres through villages and on very narrow roads. It's ridiculous," said Feith.

For eight years, trucks from the international courier company DHL suffered the narrow roads and long queues at the border. Delays in shipping goods from Vienna to Bratislava, says the courier firm, were a hindrance to its basic services. "Aside from the poor roads, there were very often huge lines at the border," said spokesperson Silvia Silverberg. "We never knew how long it would take. As our business grew, the problem became crucial."

Last February, DHL solved their problem by switching to flights from Vienna to Bratislava airports - a costly measure, but one officials say has been worth it. "It now takes us 25 to 30 minutes to receive goods from Vienna, whereas before, by truck, it took on average two hours," said Silverberg.

A wider reluctance

Austria's failure to take significant steps to improve the transportation link on the ground between Vienna and Austria has made some businessmen and analysts wonder if Austria views Slovakia as a viable business partner.

"Austria probably still doesn't realise the full economic potential of Bratislava as a business centre," said Tóth.

Feith added: "The Austrian goverment doesn't really understand the importance of a connection between Bratislava and Vienna. I think Viennese people do, but not Austrians as a whole. It's crazy because strong ties to Bratislava can only help Austria. Unlike Prague and Budapest, Bratislava is not big enough to be a competitor."

However, those close to the issue say that many factors are involved, including Austrian concerns over illegal Slovak labour and the logistical difficulties of highway construction.

"There is also the issue of labour mobility. Slovaks crossing the borders for jobs in greater numbers [as a result of easier transportation between the two countries] is probably not likely. But the fear is very real," explained Tóth.

Director of Siemens Bratislava Peter Kollárik is a member of the Austrian-Slovak Chamber of Commerce, which is currently trying to persuade Austrian authorities to establish better connections between the two cities. He agreed that concern over an influx of cheap labour existed, but that there was a more important reason for continuing delays. "Concerns with influxes of foreigners are there but I am convinced that the main problem is bureaucracy in Austria," he said. "I don't know why the Austrians just cannot work this problem out."

Austrian Ambassador to Slovakia Gabriele Matzner rejected claims that Vienna was dragging its feet over the issue. "It takes a long time to build roads. In Austria we have the same lengthy procedures as in every country, and often the same obstacles," she said.

"It's not a question of Austrians not liking Slovaks, but one of Austrians not liking big roads," she added, referring to political and legal efforts in Austria's eastern Burgenland region to block the building of a highway that would link the Kittsee border crossing to the A4 autobahn (the highway running from Vienna to Budapest). However, Matzner said that plans to build the highway were already underway. Although she wouldn't speculate on when construction might begin, she said the project had been given "highest priority".

Feith agreed that opposition in Burgenland had been the largest hindrance to building the highway. However, he feels that the problem should have been resolved a long time ago.

"Before the split of Czechoslovakia, nobody wanted to promote trade with Bratislava. The Czechs didn't want Bratislava to compete with Prague, and the Hungarians didn't want competition for Budapest. That is why work on a highway wasn't begun then. Highways take years to plan and build, but if they had started in 1989, it would have been finished by now."

While businesses wait for that highway to come, new plans will soon be implemented to cut down on long lines at the border. Several additional lanes are due to open at the Kittsee border crossing in mid November, a move officials expect to significantly reduce waits.

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