Parties see need to finish major highways, questions remain over funding

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Võõbu-Mäo section of the Tallinn-Tartu Highway has opened to traffic.
Võõbu-Mäo section of the Tallinn-Tartu Highway has opened to traffic. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

Estonia's major political parties believe that the country should stick to the promise it made to the European Commission to finish new four-lane (2+2) or three-lane (2+1) highways by 2030. However, the main question is where to find the money to complete the work and whether it is also necessary to finish those sections containing lighter volumes of traffic.

Estonia made a binding commitment to the European Commission in 2013 to complete the construction of TEN-T European network roads by 2030. However, looking at the country's budget strategy and road maintenance plan, the funds allocated for this in the coming years are insufficient, making it difficult to see how the promise can be fulfilled at the current pace.

Due to what appears to be a lack of sufficient funds to complete the entire project, it has now become necessary to consider how much of the Tallinn-Tartu-Võru-Luhamaa and Tallinn-Pärnu-Ikla highways is worth building to the promised standard by the agreed deadline. For example, the volume of motor traffic between Pärnu and Ikla is considerably lower than between Tallinn and Pärnu or Tallinn and Tartu.

Kristen Michal (Reform), chair of the Riigikogu's Economic Affairs Committee and former Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure, said that it is still possible to build the four-lane 2+2 highways as quickly as planned. Michal cited the example of the Kose-Võõbu section of the highway, which, was built during his spell as minister, half funded by the state budget and the other coming from the budget for smaller roads, due to work on the four-lane (2+2) motorways being given priority.

"My suggestion now is that the 2+2 should be extended (from Tallinn) to Pärnu and Tartu and from there (become a) 2+1. It is also a question of safety and stress," Michal said.

According to Michal, it is still realistic to plan for the completion of the TEN-T by 2030. However, according to current forecasts, the highway to Narva for example, should not be expected until 2035.

Finding the money will be a task for the next coalition, he said. "In the meantime, life has made its own correction and defense spending has understandably increased. A lot will depend on how much is spent on the construction of Rail Baltica, how busy the construction market is, and the amount of natural resources there will be at that time. It will be up to the coalition to decide on that," Michal said.

Isamaa MP Heiki Hepner, whose party is part of the current ruling coalition, also said that money must be found to complete the roads, even though next year's budget seems to suggest otherwise.

"First of all, we need to fulfil the promise to build TEN-T roads. Secondly, there is the question of funding for roads in general, and this is the biggest question mark in next year's budget. Every year the funding decreases, which is a totally unsustainable situation. It cannot be like this. It is not good," Hepner said.

Asked where the money will come from when the state budget for the next four years shows a gradual decrease in the amount allocated for road construction and maintenance, Hepner said the state will need to borrow the funds.

"We would have to take out a loan to maintain the (current) pace of construction. Those opposed to taking a loan have argued that interest rates are high at the moment, but if we look at what the consumer price index is doing, the difference is 20 percent. Of course, that won't be the case forever," said Hepner.

In Hepner's view, sections of the highway with heavier traffic definitely have to be completed by the 2030 deadline. However, for those parts where traffic volumes are lighter, such as the stretch between Pärnu and Ikla, it may be necessary to reconsider and possibly reconfigure the construction plans.

Pirko Konsa, head of Eesti 200's mobility working group, said that safe roads are a matter of importance and so, borrowing to complete the highways would be justified.

"We believe, that by 2030 the roads should be built to have at least 2+1 (three lanes), and 2+2 (four lanes) in places where the traffic volumes require it. The Tartu-Luhamaa section of the TEN-T network could be excluded, as there is no prospect of connections with Russia in the short term," Konsa said.

However, borrowing is only a short-term solution, and when it comes to the financing of roads, real reforms are needed, he added.

"In the future, excise duties should be reduced, and instead charges for road users and so-called congestion tax implemented in cities, based on the principle that those who use the roads, pay (for them). However, we are not in favor of introducing a car tax before public transport has been reformed. Why penalize people when, at the moment, using a car is often the only possible way to get around?" Konsa said.

The need for improvements to Estonia's roads was also stressed by Riigikogu opposition parties, who spoke about the issue during Vikerraadio's "Reporteritund" program on Thursday.

"Yes, they should definitely be built. The road network is important and it also saves lives," said Jüri Ratas, chair of the Center Party, adding that finances to support road construction could come from loans, state funding and private-public partnerships (PPPs).

"Yes, at the end of the day the cost will go up, but then you get the thing finished and don't wait for the next 30 years," Ratas said.

Former Minister of the Economy Taavi Aas (Center) also said, that loans should be taken out to finance road construction. "In my opinion, loans are justified for (the kind of) investments that will immediately improve our lives," Aas said.

EKRE Chair Martin Helme, said, that the completion of roads is also important from the perspective of regional policy.

"We saw how the Reform Party simply tried to pull the wool over everyone's eyes when it comes to those things that really help to drive regional policy," Helme said.

"Four-lane roads are the right thing to do. When we were in the government, we were making it work, things started moving, then the government changed and the brakes were put on again," he added.

"Whether everything will be completed by 2030, I cannot say. That will also depend on the election results. However, as far as the financing is concerned, if we have 20 to 25 percent inflation, a two or three percent interest rate on a loan will not be higher than that amount of inflation," Helme said.

In relation to a potential loan and PPPs, Helme echoed the views of Ratas, but also raised the possibility of introducing tolls. "For example, there would be a toll on the Saaremaa bridge. That is not at all be impossible, it is all possible," Helme said.

Sikkut: €1 billion more would be needed for roads

Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Riina Sikkut (SDE) said, that it would certainly be necessary to critically review the current funding principles for road maintenance would certainly over the coming years. Sikkut also said, that and additional funds would need be found to help maintain and develop Estonia's road network.

"We know that around €1 billion more would be needed for (the maintenance and development of) roads over the next four years. This can be covered through changes in taxation as well as borrowing," said Sikkut, adding that decisions about where exactly to place the focus would be the responsibility of the new government following the elections in spring.

According to Sikkut, the money required for road maintenance issues is not limited to investments in the Pärnu and Tartu connections.

"From a regional policy perspective, it is crucial to have a good quality road network to connect rural areas with larger centers," she said.

However, Sikkut added that it is also necessary to think about fundamental changes, which would promote sustainable forms of mobility. "In order to reduce traffic congestion, we need to move goods and people off the roads and onto the railways, improve the efficiency of public transport and so on," she said.

The question still remains: if Estonia's political parties all say they have the will to fund the construction of the highways, why has this not yet happened?

Estonia is committed to building European TEN-T network roads to connect Tallinn to Tartu and Pärnu by 2030. As things stand, a construction plan for work to take place from 2025-2030 exists, however no funds have been allocated.

Last week, the government approved its road maintenance plan for the next four years, in which funding for the purpose of maintaining the country's roads is set to be halved. As a result, completion of  TEN-T European network roads connecting Tallinn to Pärnu and Tartu by the end of 2030 is now at risk.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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