COMMENT: Towards sustainable, safe and smart roads in the Western Balkans

COMMENT: Towards sustainable, safe and smart roads in the Western Balkans
The first Western Balkans Road Summit was held in Tirana on June 7. / EIB
By Matteo Rivellini of EIB Global June 17, 2022

Amid the unprecedented challenges, we need to capture the momentum of the digital revolution and green transition to accelerate transformation across all sectors, including transport mobility. Roads are by far the most frequently used mode of transport. In 2020, road freight transport accounted for 77.4% of total inland freight transport, while around 80% of passenger-kilometres for inland journeys in the European Union (EU) were made by passenger car. Roads continue to present the main source of transport, promoting development and jobs.

However, roads account for about 72% of all transport-related emissions in the EU, particularly passenger cars and light vehicles which are responsible for 75% of road transport emissions. According to the United Nations, not only does transport produce about a quarter of energy-related global CO2 emissions, it is also the fastest growing use of energy in most developing countries due to increasing vehicle fleets. We must urgently reduce transport’s reliance on fossil fuels, making it more sustainable and smarter. 

There have already been many positive developments as a result of the emerging green finance taxonomy and the Paris Agreement highlighting the concept of “do no significant harm”. Achieving the EU’s target of reducing greenhouse gases by at least 55% by 2030 has already been translated into policy and financial strategies to encourage the deployment of sustainable alternative fuels and the adaptation of existing infrastructure to climate change. Under the European Green Deal, the strategy for reducing emissions from transport is automation, multimodality and improvement of mobility efficiency. The EU’s Smart and Sustainable Mobility strategy presents the solution in the uptake of at least 30mn zero-emission vehicles in Europe by 2030, the introduction of renewable and low-carbon fuels, as well as the gradual expansion of automated mobility and high-speed railways.  

Increasing road safety as the top priority

The EIB Group is playing a significant role in the transformation of mobility into greener, safer and more accessible solutions for everyone. We aim to accelerate the shift towards sustainable transport solutions by scaling up and attracting private investment. Our approach is twofold – we support large transport infrastructure projects, alongside innovative, cutting-edge technologies such as alternative fuels, e-mobility (including batteries), fuel cells and charging stations, autonomous driving systems and artificial intelligence. We aim to ensure the economic viability of our road projects, including their adaptation to climate change, while respecting the environment, improving safety and promoting social wellbeing. This will be crucial for road rehabilitation and the preparation of greenfield projects. 

On top of the climate agenda, we need to integrate higher safety standards into existing and new road infrastructure. Although the EU has made great progress in reducing the number of road fatalities, over 25,000 people are killed and 135,000 seriously injured on European roads every year. The figures per capita are significantly higher in the Western Balkans, which is mostly due to the poor state of the roads. The region recorded 1,171 fatalities in 2020, according to the Transport Community Secretariat’s statistics. The EIB is already implementing the EU Road Safety Directives, which helped us develop targeted investment programmes and increase our advisory support in this area. Moreover, since 2020, the EIB teamed up with three non-government organisations leading Road Assessment Programmes (RAP) as part of the global drive to halve the 1.35mn annual global road deaths by 2030. 

Apart from improving visibility, lighting and safety measures — especially for roadside users and non-motorised vehicles — we should also involve climate change adaptation into safety standards. Building resilience to extreme weather events by upgrading of existing infrastructure (raised embankments, improved visibility, protection barriers, etc.) needs to become an integral part of the transport projects. By way of examples, in the Western Balkans, the EIB has financed the rehabilitation of and safety improvements to hundreds of kilometres of national road network in Serbia. More recently, together with the European Commission and other financing partners, we are working to develop a region-wide programme for sustainable improvements to the existing road network.  

Adapting roads to climate change

As previously stressed, transportation of the future needs to be cleaner and less harmful to the environment. The European Commission and the EIB have developed the Cleaner Transport Facility joint initiative to support the deployment of new, cleaner technology in the transport sector covering vehicles and associated infrastructure needs, such as charging and refueling facilities. The new EIB Transport Lending Policy shall help to accelerate the transition to cleaner, greener and more resilient transport in line with climate commitments. Typical projects in the region are, for example, the upgrade of urban public transport through the modernisation and electrification of public transport fleets and fixed-line networks, which the EIB is supporting in the cities of Sarajevo and Niš. They will help them reduce environmental pollution, noise levels and traffic congestion, while improving commuting times and the convenience of public transport.

Another aspect linked to climate is the adaptation of existing road infrastructure, which is crucial to protect our assets and avoid the negative consequences of road failure (for example with improved drainage, alternative routes and additional flood and storm protection barriers). At the same time, climate adaptation needs to address social needs to make transport more inclusive and accessible to everyone. These kinds of measures include better access to remote areas, paving roads through villages, bypassing small towns and building noise barriers. Considering the needs of people with disabilities or reduced mobility, especially in urban environment planning, is also paramount. 

With a need for sustainability, safety and accessibility, the roads of the future need to be smart. The deployment of information and communication technologies, digitalisation and data collection needs to be fostered within the existing and new road infrastructure to enhance safety, efficiency, sustainability and viability. In the longer-term, developing new technologies such as e-mobility, fuel cells and charging stations and building mass transit systems such as metros and light rail are new mobility projects where the EIB is ready to intensify its support. 

Addressing infrastructure bottlenecks 

The lack of adequate road infrastructure, as well as road maintenance, has been a persistent impediment to growth in the Western Balkans and is recognised as one of the main priorities. However, limited fiscal space and a lack of private sector involvement in financing road infrastructure continues to create bottlenecks. Besides, the region is facing the lack of adequate road access to isolated areas.

Across nearly four decades, the EU bank has invested over €5bn in the Western Balkans for the construction of safer transport infrastructure, which has helped improve economic relations and regional integration. Earlier this year, the EU bank launched a new branch — EIB Global — to enhance its financial and technical support for countries outside the EU. The Western Balkans will also benefit from reinforced cooperation, assistance and enhanced presence focusing on to accelerating the implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan.

The plan envisages mobilising up to €30bn in the period 2021-2027 to support regional integration, primarily by supporting the green and digital transition, inclusive growth and sustainable connectivity. A large portion is expected to be allocated to transport projects, especially to those supporting more sustainable and safer mobility. This is enshrined in the European Commission’s Global Gateway, a new EU strategy to boost smart, clean and secure links in the digital, energy and transport sectors and to strengthen health, education and research systems across the world by closing in the investment gap worldwide.

Key EIB transport projects in the Western Balkans

As one of the key financiers under the Economic and Investment plan and under the EU Team Europe spirit, the EIB contributes to the preparation and implementation of the most important transport projects. To date, it has invested €1bn in the construction of motorways along the pan-European Corridor Vc, which links Bosnia & Herzegovina to Hungary, eastern Croatia and the Adriatic Sea. Another major transport connection in the region is Corridor X in Serbia, to which the EIB invested €579mn. One of the largest and most challenging sections along the Corridor X was the construction of a 20km section of motorway through Grdelica gorge where 20 bridges and two tunnels were built (the Manajle tunnel is the longest in Serbia). Thanks to improvements on this corridor, a more efficient transit route has been created between Bulgaria, Serbia and North Macedonia, as well as between Central Europe and Turkey towards the Middle East. 

In Serbia, the EIB is providing €100mn to finance a motorway between Niš and Merdare, complemented with €40mn EU grants. This motorway is significant for regional connectivity, as it will connect Serbia with ports on the Adriatic Sea, and for the development of the economic districts in Southern and Central Serbia. The expected economic benefits include time and vehicle operation cost savings (of 13%), and a 16% reduction in accidents on the corridor due to enhanced road capacity and quality. 

In Albania, the EIB has financed the construction of motorway bypasses for the cities of Vlora and Fier. In North Macedonia, EIB financed the construction of a new 28 km section of motorway on the pan-European Corridor X between Demir-Kapija and Smokvica. In Montenegro, the EIB is currently financing the rehabilitation of five major roads across the country covering 180km, including several bridges and tunnels. 

Western Balkans Road Summit

Amid the changing environment in the road sector, the EIB is one of the organisers of the first Western Balkans Road Summit, together with the Transport Community Secretariat (TCT) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). 

During this event held in Tirana on June 7, regional ministers in charge of transport signed a Dedication to Roads of the Future, committing to the indicative extension of the trans-European transport network to the Western Balkans and to the implementation of road maintenance systems. Other priorities agreed among the regional road authorities and public enterprises include rehabilitating the existing infrastructure and working on e-tolling interoperability, introducing of e-charging stations, implementing increased safety measures and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by digitalisation and innovation to attract young people and women into the sector. 

Matteo Rivellini is head of division for Western Balkans & Turkey at the EIB Global - Enlargement.