THE PROPOSED southern highway is shorter but bypasses northern industrial facilities.
According to ANO officials, the southern route - running from Bratislava to Košice through Nitra, Zvolen, Lučenec, and Rožňava - can be built in five years for Sk50 billion to Sk55 billion (1.19 billion to 1.3 billion euro), and would allow investors to recoup finances through tolls.
The Transport, Post, and Telecoms Ministry has reacted positively to the plan. Ministry officials said they may seek up to Sk8 billion (190 million euro) in EU funds to aid the construction. However, they said work on Slovakia's northern route, connecting Bratislava and Košice via Trnava, Trenčín, Žilina, Poprad, and Prešov would press ahead.
That route, say ANO officials, will cost Sk80 billion (1.9 billion euro) to complete, while their planned southern route could be finished sooner and boost economic development in neglected parts of the country.
"We look at economic differences in individual regions as a key obstacle to improving living standards for all citizens. [The proposed southern highway route] goes through districts with the highest unemployment rates and connects seven [of Slovakia's eight] regional administrative centres," said ANO head Pavol Rusko.
The plan has already won the backing of regional governments in Košice and Banská Bystrica, where most construction would be done. They say the proposed route would bring a faster and more direct connection between the country's two largest cities.
In addition, say the plan's backers, construction in the relatively flat south of the country would be easier than completing the northern highway route, which still requires the construction of a number of tunnels and bridges.
Slovakia has been spending on average Sk10 billion (238 million euro) per year since 1997 constructing the northern highway, but many of the most difficult sections remain to be built.
Completion of the five-kilometre Branisko tunnel between Poprad and Prešov has been pushed back to summer 2003, and the mountain pass between the Veľká and Malá Fatra mountain ranges east of Žilina has challenged engineers and slowed construction.
Many of Slovakia's industrial facilities lie along the northern route, however, and the road is much easier to connect to trunk roads in neighbouring countries than a southern highway would be.
"The northern route connects to international corridors, going north-south and east-west. It is also meaningful in developing the Považie region [west of Žilina] and the [eastern] Tatra and Spiš regions, which would have an impact on tourism," said Peter Mihok, chairman of the Slovak Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Completing the northern highway should remain the government's top priority, he said, although he added that a southern road paid for by road tolls or other non-budget resources is an idea worth pursuing.
ANO officials included the southern highway plan in a statement of party goals released on February 17, and said they had already been in contact with several possible investors.
According to Jaroslav Kling from the Mesa 10 think tank, constructing a highway in the country's south will augment the northern route after it is completed and could bring needed economic benefits to some of Slovakia's most impoverished districts.
"In terms of connecting existing economic centres and manufacturing facilities, [completing] the northern route [first] makes more sense.
"But if the purpose [of the highway] is development, it makes more sense in the south, which has been economically neglected for a long time. Existing industries and agricultural enterprises have collapsed there, unemployment is high, and the number of citizens in the post-productive age has been growing," he said.
If ANO is able to raise the money, said Kling, the party will have no trouble finding support for the southern highway, but attracting willing investors may not be so easy.
"It's a big difference if the money comes from loans or from private investors. But I don't see a short-term return on an investment into building a highway," said Kling.
24. Feb 2003 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka