RIGA - Two of the EU's highest-profile projects in the Baltics are the ongoing Via Baltica road upgrade and the proposed Rail Baltica rail link from Warsaw to Tallinn. Both serve one common purpose: to bind the areas' transport networks firmly into EU structures, thus creating a rapid and effective transport corridor from Scandinavia to Central and Eastern Europe.
It is an impressive vision, and both projects have been given eye-catching titles that imply great changes to come. But the most important question is to what extent they will ever be achieved.
Big name, small scale?
In itself, the idea of improving north-south transport links is a good one. The Baltics now form the most direct land corridor from Finland to central Europe, and in the words of Andulis Zidkovs, director of the investment department at the Latvian Transport Ministry, "the shortest way is always the best."
Whereas before May 1, 2004, the only way for EU-bound Finnish travellers to avoid half a dozen lengthy border crossings was to take the sea route to Germany's ports or drive across Sweden and the Oresund bridge, they can now drive directly through the Baltics - EU territory all the way. The same applies in the other direction, and given the new EU members' rapid increase in living standards, the traffic is unlikely to be one-way.
Furthermore, the Via Baltica project is nowhere near as radical as it seems. While the name may conjure up images of a brand-new ribbon of silken asphalt binding the Baltics together, the reality is limited to a series of local upgrades.
"It's a question of money," says Imants Kaupe, head of the road planning division at the Latvian Transport Ministry. "It costs a million lats (1.42 million euros) to reconstruct one kilometer of dual-carriageway road. The Via Baltica plan covers over 200 kilometers of road in Latvia, and our total annual budget from the state is about 50 million lats. That doesn't even cover our maintenance costs."
Nor is the EU about to foot such a bill.
"Total funding from EU and Latvian sources since 1996 has amounted to 39 million lats," says Zidkovs.
Given this slender funding, Via Baltica will never be more than a local road-improvement scheme. As such, it may not merit the grandiose dreams that its name conjures up, but it should certainly improve transit and safety on Latvia's roads, which can only benefit trade and tourism.
But despite the obvious benefits, there is a paradox. The EU wants to improve road transport in the Baltics, but its environmental rules often point the other way.
"The EU's priority is to create 'motorways of the sea,' connecting ports with the main transit corridors as an alternative to road transport," says Zidkovs.
Road tolls are becoming increasingly common, and while they have not yet reached the Baltics, the trend seems unlikely to reverse. It would be ironic if the EU's own rules came to restrict the highway that it built. But as Kaupe says, "this doesn't depend on the roads, it depends on political decisions."
Given that dependence, it is probably just as well that Via Baltica is not a larger scheme.
Rail Baltica looks far more radical. A joint initiative by transport ministers from Poland and the Baltics, it foresees the creation of a high-speed, European-gauge rail link from Warsaw to Tallinn. At present, Baltic trains run on Soviet-gauge tracks, which are not compatible with the European gauge present in Poland and further west.
Conceived in 2003, the initiative has been included as a priority in the European Commission's "TEN-T" trans-European transport plan, and the Commission has agreed to fund a preliminary feasibility study, due for completion in late 2006.
If all goes according to plan, the Warsaw-Kaunas secton should be ready in 2010, Kaunas-Riga in 2014 and Riga-Tallinn in 2016. Political clouds are already gathering over the project. As Zidkovs points out, "Everyone wants the project to come to them," so these dates are only guidelines.
Rail Baltica seems to fit the EU's aims better than Via Baltica. Rail transport is more environmentally friendly than road transport, improves road safety, and is potentially much faster. If Rail Baltica's trains followed the French TGV model, they could make the journey from Tallinn to Riga in a little over two hours.
The same economic arguments backing Via Baltica apply to the rail variant. While Zidkovs admits that "at the moment there is effectively no international rail transport in the region," he firmly believes that this will change.
"There is a clear need for such a line. If you look at a map of Europe, the only land route from the Baltics to the west is through Poland, and the conditions on Polish roads are very well known. If we look even 30 years in the future, of course there will be demand, and don't forget that a railway line is an investment for a hundred years in the future," he says.
It is just as well that he takes such a long view, because the cost could be formidable.
"Just to construct the new line on Latvian territory, we expect costs to reach around one billion euros, and we won't be able to finance it all with EU money, so we will need private-sector involvement," Zidkovs adds.
The project dwarfs Via Baltica. Biven that no technical details will be discussed until after the presentation of the EC's study next December, it could last a generation.
"There will be public consultations in Brussels this April for stakeholders to air their views," says Zidkovs.
And one can expect a lot more talking before the first rail is laid.
In the final analysis, both projects meet valid needs. However, the sheer expense renders their full implementation unlikely. While the Via Baltica is based on an existing road network and can thus be implemented piecemeal, Rail Baltica would require construction from scratch, with all the cost and risk that entails.
Looking at the long term, as Zidkovs recommends, the latter project is unquestionably the more promising. But long-term projects require long-term capital and political will. It may be that, come 2016, the first high-speed train will be cruising between Tallinn and Warsaw - but don't book your tickets just yet.