Enhancing Albania’s road network is vital to the country’s continued development and integration into the European community. Improved roads will facilitate growth and investment of key sectors like tourism, agriculture and energy. To meet the country’s ambitious development goals, the Albanian Roads Authority is working with international partners to build their capacity to manage the key road projects underway throughout the country. Here, Sonila Qato, who has been director of the Albanian Roads Authority (ARRSH) since January 2019, explains the steps the country is taking to ensure transparency, efficiency and high standards for Albanian road development
Could you describe ARRSH’s key objectives going forward?
The objectives of ARRSH are derived from the need to provide integrated, well-managed, viable and sustainable transport infrastructure for the 21st century, according to European Union (EU) standards. This is all with the aim of establishing a coherent base from which to promote accessibility and the safe, reliable, effective and efficient movement of people, goods and services. Roads are key to increasing opportunities, creating employment and enabling the growth of the Albanian economy. They are very important for us. Good transport infrastructure is one of the most important instruments to help the development of Albania, as it will attract investment in agriculture, tourism, energy and other sectors. Without good roads, sectors like tourism are difficult to develop. In 2021, we aim to attract 10 million foreign tourists to Albania. This is a huge mission and we have to use all the tools at our disposal to help accomplish it.
Another main aim is to boost regional connectivity and trade within the six Western Balkan countries and with Europe. This is in light of the Berlin Process WB6, a regional initiative supporting the EU perspective of our six countries, and the creation of a Regional Economic Area with the end goal of facilitating integration into the EU.
This strategy has been in place since 2013 and the end of our second mandate is in 2021. To carry it all out, we are operating with investment not only from the Albanian government but also with external institutions. For example, we are working on projects financed by the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. They are all important and linked with tourism, agriculture, and agritourism as well.
How has Albania’s economic reform program impacted infrastructure development?
The economic program for the period 2018-2020 envisages the implementation of 17 reforms, which are very important for different Albanian sectors. The economic reform program promotes the connectivity agenda of WB6, and its implementation is deemed as a key factor for enhancing growth and employment. At the moment, the political ambitions are both high and costly, reflecting the complexity of infrastructure connectivity projects in transport and energy. This program envisages the implementation of some measures that directly affect the road infrastructure, such as a feasibility study for construction and upgrading of the Adriatic-Ionian Corridor. Albania is included in the European network TEN-T, through the Adriatic-Ionian highway (which, in most of the Albanian territory, is aligned with the north-south road axis) and the 6,000km Mediterranean Corridor, which starts in Spain and runs through France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. The Adriatic-Ionian highway connects the Mediterranean TEN-T corridor. This construction project is part of the creation of a modern road network, which is not only to be seen as a road crossing plan facilitating traffic between citizens, but also has to be a plan to connect transportation to and from the marine ports. Our ports will have the chance to be linked to the Balkan’s interconnecting routes. In making the region more connected to Europe, this project will facilitate movement and trade, thus give a further boost to the region by linking it up well with the EU. The construction of the Adriatic-Ionian highway should be completed by 2030. Overall, I believe that our economic reform program will also help infrastructure by creating stronger economic stability, which will boost state revenue and make it possible for us to manage these investments sustainably.
Albania is a candidate for EU membership, and talks could begin as early as this June. What are your thoughts on the impact Albania’s accession to the EU could have on Albania’s infrastructure sector?
A few months ago, the EU announced that Albania will begin accession talks at the end of June, pending unanimous approval by the EU’s 28 member states. We are confident that we will get that approval because of what the government has achieved so far. Albania is already part of the Berlin Process, with a large part of the connectivity agenda being focused on the road network throughout the Balkan region. Although the Berlin Process might seem rather orientated towards regional cooperation, which is quite important for the sustainable development of the Western Balkans, this objective has to be considered as complementary to EU integration. The EU, in numerous ways, has already provided financial and technical assistance for strategic infrastructure investments and road maintenance. We believe that by being a part of the EU, Albania will have more access to larger funding and through that, apply higher standards to road infrastructure. On the other hand, we believe that Albania’s accession to the EU will also benefit the union since it would enhance economic cooperation. Albania’s ties with the EU have never been stronger. For example, 66 percent of Albania’s trade is with the EU at the moment and a large part of its foreign investments also derive from the EU. Accession would certainly boost this economic cooperation.
The IMF has suggested Albania improves its risk analysis for management of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and you have stressed your commitment to dialogue and transparency. Expand on your vision to bring management of public investments in roads in line with EU standards.
Albanian institutions related to PPPs are undergoing the “Capacity Building for Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Management Skills Development in the Albanian Transport sector” program in collaboration with European Delegation. This capacity building program aims to improve the whole management of PPP contracts, from procurement to end of a contract. The consultant will provide continuous training for three to four months in various institutions such as ours, or ministries that are involved in PPPs. This capacity building program will also provide examples of EU standards in public infrastructure management, especially concerning PPPs.
The Albanian Road Authority is in the process of creating a new international procurement procedure for technical assistance for its construction and maintenance department. The technical assistance will consist of creating and regulating a new way of managing contract according to EU standards. We have a foreign consultant who will help us implement new tools and systems, and propose changes in legislation and contracts, to facilitate the management of public investment contracts in the road sector. Our commitment to dialogue and transparency is non-negotiable. The Albanian Road Authority, as manager of some of the largest public investments and owner of one of the most important assets in Albania, will continue to work under full transparency, responsibility and professionalism to make the road sector the leader of Albania’s development.
How can German companies lend expertise in the area of Albania’s road development?
The Albanian government is seeking to meet the highest international standards in the management of public investments in roads. Continuous efforts have been made to amend the law of PPPs with the aim of approximating it as much as possible to European legislation. There is a big opportunity for German companies to get involved in infrastructure PPPs in Albania. The PPP contracts in Albania are granted through competitive, open international procedures. German companies are more than welcome to be part of these procedures. We want German investors to come to Albania, work with local companies, bring their know-how and transform our country because we need to improve the standards of our roads and their implementation.
How do you envision the future of the Albanian Road Authority as an organization?
In the future, the prime minister, the minister of infrastructure and I wish to transform this authority into a self-financing institution, just as the road authorities are in all other countries in the region and in Europe. At the moment, we have an old-style institution that is completely dependent on the state budget. We are in preliminary discussions about this; it’s not official, but it’s our target. The World Bank is helping with technical assistance. It’s a lot of work to transform from one kind of management into a new one, which is more business- and commercially-driven. We are currently building the capacity of institutions to get ready for this next step, which is very important for the overall improvement of infrastructure in Albania.