TALLINN - A Tallinn chemistry lab employee carefully placed five coffee cups on the table in anticipation of her guests, colleagues who were scheduled to arrive from Tartu.
Alas, she never got the chance to pour the coffee. A tragic accident on the Tallinn-Tartu highway claimed two lives on the spot, while another died in the hospital hours later.
The police later concluded that the accident hadn't been their fault: A car traveling in the opposite direction crashed into them.
It is just one of many accidents on the so-called "death road" that thousands of Estonians inevitably have to use on a regular basis. There is a railway connection, but the car is a much faster and sometimes cheaper method of transportation.
Once again, the two-lance Tallinn-Tartu claimed its own.
Little wonder, then, that many Estonians were shocked by the Economy Ministry's announcement last week that it would not build a modern, four-lane highway between the economic and intellectual capitals of the country.
"The preparation works, land purchase and highway research also take time. The ministry and road administration's opinion is that the four-lane road to Mao could be concluded by 2015," said Airi Illison, a ministerial spokeswoman.
That is 10 years from now.
"It is a very expensive project that requires serious analyses, because there are several other investment needs like the Tallinn circuit, which costs approximately 2 billion kroons, and Tartu's circuit, with 1 billion kroons," she continues.
"Planning the latter will start very soon," she adds.
The Tallinn-Tartu motorway is 185 kilometers long, starting with four lanes on the outskirts of Estonia' capital. Apparently not all of the highway can be rebuilt: the section from Kose to Mao is too narrow and curvy, Illison explained, and will have to be built from scratch.
"It is an extremely expensive project," said Illisson, explaining it costs 40 million kroons (2.5 million euros) per kilometer to build four lanes. To rebuild 150 's 160 kilometers would require 6 billion kroons.
"But that's a theory. In practice, the Estonian Road Administration and the ministry make decisions according to the density of traffic and the number of accidents. Compared to other EU countries some parts of Tallinn-Tartu road do not have the density that requires four lanes," she admitted.
According to the Estonian Road Administration, 3,000 cars pass along the Tallinn-Tartu road every day, which is not enough to justify expanding it into a proper four-lane highway. For that, daily traffic needs to reach 10,000 vehicles, the administration said.
Tiina Reimann, assistant to the deputy director general at the Estonian Road Administration, told The Baltic Times that the situation on Tallinn-Tartu road was not the worst. Thirteen people died on the 282-kilometer stretch of Tallinn 's Tartu 'sVoru 'sLuhamaa last year, compared with three people on the 34-kilometer Tallinn-Paldiski highway, which is four times less.
Comparing the number of victims per 100 million car kilometers last year, the Tallinn-Tartu highway, with its index of 17, was similar to that of the Tallinn circuit.
Laine Janes, mayor of Tartu, opined in the daily Postimees on Dec. 8 that it was cynical to talk about an "insufficient" number lost. Tartu needs a proper road for development of the area.
Meanwhile, she praised the construction of the Tallinn-Narva highway and plans to build a bridge to Saaremaa Island.
In the meantime, roadside lighting and collision barriers have been added to several roads to liquidate lethal danger. In the future, Puurmanni locals will be able to use a bridge to avoid the highway traffic. A bypass will also be added to the Tallinn-Turi highway.
MP Robert Lepikson, an experienced race driver, said that road maintenance companies should also be made responsible for the situation, and that police should check the slipperiness of roads early in the morning. Efforts by private companies to maintain roads are lacking, he adds. Maintenance is done routinely depending on the time and type of road, regardless of weather.
"The Tallinn-Tartu highway should be expanded regardless. If there is not enough money, bypass roads should be built on mountain slopes, like in Finland, where more powerful cars can pass weak ones," says Lepikson.
"To hide behind traffic density statistics is as good as hiding one's head in the sand. Better count the corpses," he said.