AS SLOVAK transport authorities celebrate the June 29 opening of the Branisko tunnel outside the eastern city of Prešov, controversy is still brewing in the cabinet over the country's highway plans.
The tunnel, at 4.8 kilometres, is Slovakia's longest, and is a major step towards completing a highway connection for the country's two largest cities, the capital Bratislava in the west and Košice in the east, along the so-called northern route.
Minister of Transport, Post, and Telecoms Pavol Prokopovič has submitted plans to the cabinet that call for the route, which passes through Prešov and Poprad before continuing along the Váh river through some of Slovakia's most heavily industrialised areas, to be completed as early as 2008 with the aid of EU structural and cohesive funds, as well as private investment.
"[The northern route] is the only possible highway connection between the east and west [of Slovakia]," Prokopovič told journalists on June 21, adding that the ministry was also exploring plans to construct a more general-purpose dual carriageway through the country's south.
The minister said he would like to offer the first international tender under the construction plan by September, and that the whole project would be administered through a state-owned highway company, allowing for more flexible financing and faster construction.
According to the plan, the state should provide between Sk9 billion and Sk11.5 billion (€215 million and €274 million) per year towards the completion of the planned route.
While the northern highway, much of which has already been either completed or contracted, remains a priority, Prokopovič's plan also calls for a southern route from Košice to Zvolen, central Slovakia, continuing to Bratislava either through Nitra or Nové Zámky further to the south, to be constructed later, but without private funding.
"Private capital will go to the construction of [the northern highway], which will enable the greater use of state funds towards dual carriageways," said Prokopovič.
"We have prepared a study and we are doing all the preparatory work so that in the future we can begin the construction of a dual carriageway [in the south]," he said.
Representatives of the coalition New Citizens' Alliance (ANO) and Hungarian Coalition (SMK) parties, however, are calling for more effort to be placed on building alternative highway routes in the south of the country, where they say the construction would be faster and cheaper.
At a cabinet meeting on June 18, SMK representatives vetoed the Transport Ministry proposal, forcing the matter to a Coalition Council session on June 25.
"We are not opposed to [building] the highway in the north, but it cannot be done in such a way that all the money for transport development is used on its construction," said Environment Minister László Miklós from the SMK.
"The main reason to build a road and highway network has to be to connect the regions. For us, it is mostly about ensuring that the most remote regions, which are in the country's south, receive a definite stimulus," said Miklós.
In February, ANO representatives unveiled plans to build a southern highway via Nitra and Zvolen financed by private investment.
Party leaders said the road could be built within five years at a cost of Sk50 billion to Sk55 billion (€1.2 billion to €1.3 billion), compared to the estimated Sk80 billion (€1.9 billion) required to complete the northern route.
According to Prokopovič, however, the state will more easily find investors for the northern highway, and the proposed southern route would run parallel to an existing highway in northern Hungary.
"Private capital goes where there are attractive conditions, and the [northern highway] is more attractive because the areas it goes through are the most industrialised," said Prokopovič.
Economy Minister Robert Nemcsics from the ANO party, however, disputes that there is a lack of investor interest in constructing alternate highways.
"There is equal interest for private capital in constructing the southern route as the northern," said Nemcsics to the SME daily.
ANO is continuing to push its February plan, which calls for the northern route to be completed through state funding while the southern route is built by investors and EU funds.
"That is what we proposed half a year ago, and as long as we can reach a decision, we will certainly support it," said ANO head Pavol Rusko on the private TV channel Markíza.
The highway dispute comes at a time of increasing tensions among members of Slovakia's four-party ruling coalition, as government leaders continue to squabble over proposed changes to the abortion law and over the country's reaction to the controversial status law passed recently in neighbouring Hungary (see article page 3).
Officials from the SMK, however, say their objections to the highway plans are not politically motivated, but are about ensuring that Slovakia's economic progress brings benefits to all its citizens.
"This is a technical and economic problem, not some kind of political issue. We are simply interested in the development of lagging regions," said Miklós.
30. Jun 2003 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka