Reconstruction on Via Baltica invites smoother ride

  • 2001-06-21
  • Rita Bubina
RIGA - Major reconstruction works have started this summer on three sections of the Via Baltica highway in Latvia to improve road quality and traffic safety on the Baltics' main transportation corridor.

On the Riga-Tallinn highway, 8.2 kilometers of road from the Gauja to Lilaste rivers will be widened from 7 to 11.5 meters, improving the road safety by reconstructing the junctions and the bridge across the Lilaste River. A temporary bridge has been built for cars and regular busses, but trucks and lorries have to use the bypass road through Saulkrasti and Birini.

The reconstruction costs of 6.25 million euros ($5.48 million) are covered by EU Instrument for Structural Policies for Pre-Accession (ISPA) funds with co-financing from the state and is planned to be finished Oct. 30.

The Iecava-Bauska road span is undergoing similar reconstruction work. No restrictions concerning cars and lorries have been imposed there. Work on this 20.2-kilometer span is expected to last until September and is being financed with the help of the EU Phare program. The work in the center of the town of Bauska, which is also being financed by Phare, involves construction of underground communications and should be completed by November.

Traffic on the Via Baltica increased 43 percent in Lithuania from 1995 to 1999; 31 percent in Latvia during the same period; 28 percent in Poland; and 16 percent in Estonia, according to the Latvian Road Administration. A 5 percent traffic increase per year is estimated up to 2005, and 3.5 percent per year from 2005 to 2015.

Another project that has already got the acceptance of EU institutions is improvements to the access road to Riga International Airport, which will include a connection to the Via Baltica. The first part of the project will begin in March 2002 and will include pavement reconstruction, repair of two bridges in the interchange and several other improvements.

According to Juris Taurins, project manager of ISPA in Latvia, the second part of the access road project may cause some dissatisfaction among Riga citizens. Because of the building of a bridge over Zolitudes Street and two additional ramps, some of the access streets to Ulmana Avenue will be closed. However, he said that the local infrastructure wouldn't suffer, as two service roads will be built along the highway.

Local people have several times complained about the lack of pedestrian crossings over Ulmana Avenue, therefore within the project there have also been planned several pedestrian crossings.

Other priorities of the second investment program planned to be completed by 2006 include the construction of a new road from Riga to Adazi to Gauja, a bypass road of the Via Baltica at Saulkrasti and several other improvements on highway A7.

Improvement of the Baltezers' bottleneck on the Riga-Tallinn highway was blocked last year, when local residents voted against any widening of the road there. As the stretch from Baltezers to Saulkrasti has the highest level of traffic in the area around Riga, something has to be done to solve this problem.

"Every road is a compromise," said Valdis Lauksteins, director of the technical department at the Latvian Road Administration. The new, alternative project will start in 2002 and involve the improvement of the road within its present width. Besides, every house in Baltezers will receive new sound-isolating windows, Lauksteins added.

The alternative project involves building the Baltezers bypass along the west side of Lielais Baltezers Lake. As Taurins explained, to build the bypass "we have to find out where it will be connected to the main road."

In cooperation with the Riga City Council, the Latvian Road Association is planning to prepare an investigation project for the Baltezers bypass and an alternative to Brivibas Street with a new bridge or a tunnel across the Daugava River. The tunnel however "was mostly part of the parties' pre-election campaigns," said Taurins.

The total costs of crossing the Daugava are about 165 million euros and, according to Taurins, "the improvement of ramps from the bridges may solve the problem of traffic jams with much smaller expenses."

The Saulkrasti bypass is another project the Latvian Road Administration is working on, though it still requires building plans and an environmental assessment.

"This is a complicated and long process," said Lauksteins. Construction is not expected to begin until 2003.

At a Pan-European conference of transport ministers in 1994, the 930-kilometer Via Baltica, which stretches from Helsinki to Warsaw, was classified as an important highway link in Eastern Europe.

Until now financial support was only available for the basic 202-kilometer section in Latvia. But lately the country has managed to convince EU institutions that the access roads and routes are important as well, Lauksteins said.

This may result in financial support for the stretch from Liepaja and Ventspils through Riga and Rezekne up to Terehova. Fifty-four percent of Latvia's total road network is gravel, as is 49 percent of Estonia's and 45 percent of Lithuania's, according to Baltic road administrations.

"We have often been reproached for shifting all the resources to the Via Baltica as if other roads didn't have to be repaired. I fully agree to that but all the money we receive is supposed to cover the reconstruction costs of the Via Baltica and we can't use it for anything else," said Lauksteins.