Tolling on Albania-Kosovo highway resumes amid high police presence

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 17, 2018 17:34

Tolling on Albania-Kosovo highway resumes amid high police presence

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  • "The whole police and state apparatus had lined up against citizens to protect the theft through the corruptive concession at the Highway of Nation. Police officers put on a show of force and used psychological terror last night (Sunday) and today (Monday) against citizens in order to stop them from protesting," said Agron Shehaj, an opposition Democratic Party MP who led the local protest in Kukes town.

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TIRANA, Sept. 17 – Drivers crossing the so-called Highway of Nation linking Albania to Kosovo paid tolls on Monday as tolling resumed peacefully but amid high police presence following a five-month suspension triggered by violent protests leading to revised fees for local residents and frequent users.

Average €5 fees on the country’s first toll road were initially applied last March but suspended following a March 31 protest by local residents that turned violent after they burned down booths, opposing the tolls as too high for the country’s poorest region, northeast Albania.

The reintroduction of tolls comes after the government renegotiated fees with the concessionaire and local government officials to apply a 100 lek (€0.78) toll for Kukes residents compared to average tolls of €5 for other highway users, and apply discounts for regular business users.

The new revised fees offer up to 40 percent discount on regular users with 10 to 60 passes a month who can also take advantage of a digital pass system.

Tolls were also delayed for Sept. 17 to allow residents of Kosovo get to Albania at no extra fee during summer and prevent a possible boycott from the country with highest number of tourists to Albania.

The Albanian concessionaire, a partnership between two of the country’s largest companies with key operations in the oil and road industries, has made available ten toll booths, two of which for Kukes residents, whose car owners and public transport operators benefit reduced fees.

The Albanian Highway Concession says it plans to employ around 200 local residents and apply a series of social projects during its first four years of operation under its 30-year concession contract with the Albanian government.

Local media reported high police presence on Monday amid fears of protests following warnings of protests by politicians and local residents not agreeing to the revised fees and worries that the toll could have a negative effect on tourist flows from Kosovo and trade exchanges with the neighboring ethnic Albanian country.

Yet, there was a small protest led by local party officials and MPs of the main opposition Democratic Party who claimed police and special intervention forces used psychological terror on local residents not to participate in warned protests.

A local business association in Kukes region had warned the re-introduction of tolls risked bringing back a new March 31 scenario when the protest turned violent and tolling equipment were destroyed and set on fire, leading to the arrest of 23 local residents, a handful of whom still remain in prison.

“The whole police and state apparatus had lined up against citizens to protect the theft through the corruptive concession at the Highway of Nation. Police officers put on a show of force and used psychological terror last night (Sunday) and today (Monday) against citizens in order to stop them from protesting,” said Agron Shehaj, an opposition Democratic Party MP who led the local protest in Kukes town.

“This day shows that the crime-government-oligarchs-media alliance is a danger for Albania and our future. There is only one escape from it and that’s its destruction. That is our duty and the duty of every Albanian with courage and dignity,” he added.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Edi Rama thanked Kukes residents for their civic reaction, promising new investments such an already built airport that has been awaiting to become operational for a decade and a new stadium.

Tolls ranging from €2.5 for motorcycles, to €5 for passenger cars, €11.2 for buses, and €16.2 and €22.5 for mid and high-tonnage trucks have been described as too high by the Albanian and Kosovo business communities, who fear trade exchanges between the two ethnic Albanian countries could receive a severe blow.

The highway concession saves the Albanian government an annual €4 million in maintenance costs but the government will still pay the consortium through taxpayer money in subsidies for traffic guarantees in return for investment and maintenance for the next 30 years.

Tolls on the 114 km highway that will be collected on the 5.5 km twin-bore Thirre tunnel.

Operational since 2009 on the Albanian side and from 2013 in Kosovo, the Highway of Nation linking the two ethnic Albanian countries has given a strong impetus to trade and human exchanges in the past decade following Kosovo’s independence.

With trade barriers still in place, business associations have voiced concern that tolling could serve as an extra tax hampering Albania-Kosovo trade exchanges, which hit a historic high of 29.4 billion lek (€230 million) in 2017 after fluctuating at about the same level of about €160 million in the past five years.

An average of 5,000 vehicles cross through the Highway of Nation, where traffic peaks during summer as Kosovars flock Albanian seaside towns in what is known as patriotic tourism.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 17, 2018 17:34