Last July, Montenegro inaugurated one of the most ambitious highways in the world. The 41-kilometer stretch of highway, which stretches from near the capital Podgorica towards Serbia, passes through some of the most difficult terrain in the Balkans – and with around 60 percent of the highway made up of tunnels and bridges, it is considered one of the most expensive roads in the world.
But now, for a $3.75 toll, a previously treacherous and arduous journey through the notoriously dangerous Morača Canyon is nothing more than a flash on freshly paved asphalt – and the highway is widely considered to be a crucial path for the future development of Montenegro.
This first section is part of a 160-kilometer highway intended to connect the Montenegrin port of Bar to Serbia, the country’s main trading partner. Montenegro’s road network is very limited, but the government wants to expand it, especially because this first section, financed by the Chinese bank EXIM and built by the Chinese CRBC, has already brought many benefits to the region.
Goran Janković is commander of the Podgorica Protection and Rescue Service. He lives about thirty kilometers north of the capital, in a village where his family owns a small tourist farm. He is delighted with his new route.
“This highway has totally changed my life and that of my family,” he told CGTN. “From the urban bustle we moved to a life in the countryside, and it was more than the right decision. And we already had the first tourists last year, who came to the village simply because the highway was open.”
Before that, it took Janković more than an hour to get to work on the dangerous roads of Morača Canyon; now, his journey takes 20 minutes on a comfortable and, above all, much safer road. His job is also much easier.
“So far we have had between 1,500 and 1,700 casualties on the old road through the Morača Canyon,” he says. “Now, since this highway has been actively used, we have had a few accidents, but they are incomparable with the numbers on the old road.”
The famous canyon road is bypassed by this feat of engineering. It starts at 63 meters above sea level and rises to 1,000 meters above sea level via a series of 20 bridges and 16 tunnels, all built by 3,000 Chinese and local workers.
The highway takes drivers through some of the most challenging terrain on the planet, but also offers stunning views. This difficult construction was only the beginning of this project, which officials say is of vital importance to Montenegro. And the government is already thinking about the next step. But global financial considerations make future plans more difficult.
“It is now obvious that due to the state of public finances and turbulent events in the financial market, a model of financing this highway from our budget is almost impossible,” explained the Minister of Finance of Montenegro , Aleksandar Damjanovic. “So we are open to public-private partnership or other concession models.”
The costs of the remaining sections of the highway might be too high for Montenegro, but continuing to improve the road system would be popular with people like Janković, who says the new highway has already changed lives – for the better.