The general partnership of Bechtel and Enka has been constructing projects in eastern Europe for a quarter of a century, including motorways in Turkey and Albania. In fact the Kosovo Motorway is an extension of the Albanian Motorway built by Bechtel and Enka.
Projects in the U.S. are sometimes big and sometimes even important, but very little can compare to the national importance of the Kosovo Motorway to the new nation of Kosovo.
The Kosovo Motorway has major significance not just for Kosovo but for the Balkan states around it. Kosovo has only existed as an independent country for about five years. It is still trying to get its infrastructure established after its war with Serbia in the early 1990s.
“With the 60 km that we’ve already opened since the beginning of the project in 2010,” Chris Jennions, Bechtel’s project manager for the Kosovo Motorway, told Roads & Bridges, “we’ve seen that this road is already funneling all of the traffic from northern Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and from all of Kosovo down through this motorway into Albania through the Albanian Motorway and to the coast and the commercial ports down there.”
The prime goal of the Kosovo government in building the Kosovo Motorway is to stimulate commerce in the Balkans by speeding access to the commercial ports on the Adriatic Sea coast of Albania.
In a sense, the Albanian Motorway was more difficult to construct, because the builders had to cut through the mountain range that separates the coast from the bulk of the Balkans.
“We actually built a 5.5-km tunnel through the most mountainous of sections,” Jennions said. “That was really interesting, because before then any trip from Tirana [Albania] to the border of Kosovo would have taken 10-11 hours. Now it takes 2.5-3 hours.”
Having the national government in your corner also is handy when it comes time to stake out land for a brand new road alignment.
“I think one of the largest hurdles anywhere in the world in building infrastructure projects like this is always expropriation,” Jennions said. “Because you’re building what is essentially a device, you’re building something which takes up a lot of land. You’re going to displace a lot of people, a lot of farmland, a lot of communities.
“The reason this project has been such a success is because the government has understood that that’s the key issue and got out ahead of it. The government’s done some fantastic work in educating the community, getting out ahead of that expropriation process, in order to give up the land, so that we can go ahead and build it.
“When it comes to having the land and actual construction, it’s much the same,” Jennions continued. “You need the experienced people. You do the quality testing to the specifications and standards you’re working to. We’re fortunate enough to build through some landscapes which have sufficient quality of material in the alignment, so we can reuse a lot of the materials to build the concrete, to build the asphalt. Once you have the land, it’s much the same as anywhere else.”
Finding the right people for the job can be a challenge, but Bechtel and Enka have made a commitment to finding and developing expertise among the local population.
“For us, the best thing that we can do is we work to source as much labor, as many subcontractors and as much materials locally,” Jennions said. “The reason we do that is local knowledge in countries like Kosovo is absolutely essential to the completion of a project.”
More than 70% of Bechtel-Enka’s staff working on the project is local, and more than 60% of the subcontractors are local.
“Especially when you’re coming into a country that’s only been a country in itself for five years, you’ve got to understand that the war still lives pretty freshly in people’s minds. So when all of a sudden you come along as an American contractor to build a motorway through their land, unless it’s very well explained to them that this is for the benefit of the government, they look at you in some cases quite poorly.”
There is construction experience in the country, but Bechtel and Enka have been able to bring the expertise up to a higher level.
“They come from a different safety culture, so we have to do a lot of training,” according to Jennions. “We’ve done both safety and craft training to bring them up to our required standards for safety but also for the quality of the installed force.
“Being such a large project and such a well-known project throughout the country, people want to work with us. They see the work that we’re doing. They see the training that we give, and we get applications by the thousands as we move through the different areas of the country.”
After the Kosovo Motorway is completed, that local expertise is going to be available for future projects. The Kosovo government is already looking for other infrastructure projects to build.
One of the more exotic materials Kosovo made available for use in the motorway is the igneous rock used as the aggregate in the wearing course. The igneous aggregate gives the stone-mastic asphalt wearing course greater skid resistance and longer life.
“Igneous material is hard enough to withstand the wear of tires, which means even when the bitumen of the final layer wears off—as it naturally does with roads—the rock itself isn’t worn away by the tires. With that you get quite a gritty, grippy road, which means that even in wet conditions it’s still very safe for people to drive along and keeps its skid resistance for a long time.”
Along with being harder than the limestone aggregate used in the deeper layers of the motorway, igneous rock also is harder to crush. It also is heavier, so it is more difficult and more expensive to transport.
Bechtel and Enka used igneous rock on motorways in Albania and Croatia, so they have the experience and equipment to handle it. The builders have a standard asphalt cross section with a total depth of 180 mm.
Below the 40-mm igneous wearing course is a 50-mm bonding layer, with 16-mm limestone aggregate and a 50/70 binder. Under the bonding layer is an asphalt base course of 32-mm stone and 50/70 binder with a thickness of 90 mm. The contractor laid the asphalt with a Vogele paver. Compaction was accomplished with rubber-tire breakdown rollers, followed by vibratory steel-drum rollers.
Below the asphalt courses is a sub-base of 32-mm stone under a cement-treated base (CTB) of 32-mm stone mixed with 2% portland cement. Soil conditions along the 100-km alignment vary, so the sub-base and CTB depth must vary to accommodate the soil quality.
“Where you have good conditions, fine, you can build back up,” explained Jennions, “but when you don’t, you need to continue to dig until you find a solid base and then replace that soil with fill.
“We make sure we have a stable base,” he continued. “We build that back up with rock material to get back over what is in a lot of cases the flood levels of the water table to make sure we’re above everything else, so it’s going to drain away from the motorway not toward it.”
Along with 100 km of asphalt-paved roadway, Bechtel and Enka constructed 15 bridges, 31 overpasses, 22 underpasses, two slope protection walls, five retaining walls, 31 box culverts and two animal crossings.
The bridges were all constructed to a standard design using standard precast, prestressed U-beams.
“It’s always amazed me, you can drive down a motorway almost anywhere in the world, and every single overpass or underpass or bridge that you go over will be slightly different. I’ve always wondered why,” Jennions said. “Why do you bother coming up with a different design for every single bridge? Standardization is a beautiful thing. It’s not glamorous. It doesn’t produce the Golden Gate Bridge, but it does produce efficiency in both execution and cost. And that’s what we’ve had here. In total, we’ve built 15 bridges along the alignment, and all of them have used this same system.”
The 140-ton U-beams are cast at a facility near the alignment, rolled to the bridge location and launched into their proper place. The span length is relatively consistent for each bridge at 40 meters, give or take a few meters. The longest of the bridges is one they just finished launching. At 750 meters, it is the longest bridge in Kosovo.
The total length of all the bridges in the project is a little more than 3 km. The Kosovo government is determined to get the best use of its new 100-km motorway. It already has a maintenance contractor in place to take care of the motorway. The government also has installed provisions for tollbooths at the interchanges to generate revenue from the road once it is open. Crews are now in the process of setting up the tollbooth operations on the 60 km of motorway already opened.
Along with the toll facilities, the government had traffic counters installed in the pavement at the interchanges, the only places where vehicles can enter or exit the motorway. In the first summer of operation of the first 60 km of the motorway, traffic far exceeded the government’s expectations.
As the final frosting on the Kosovo Motorway cake, it is being built as a green corridor. Bechtel and Enka are planting trees all along the alignment. Excavated soil that cannot be used under the motorway is being used to cover areas of waste from two coal-fired power plants near Pristina, and trees are planted to turn waste into scenic land. Bechtel and Enka are giving out recycled trash bags and information leaflets at the Albania border, encouraging travelers to keep the corridor clean and dispose of waste properly.
Once again, the government has taken an active role in protecting the environment by adopting the best practices from the rest of Europe.
The government of Kosovo also is looking after its financial health by paying for its new 800 million-euro motorway out of its budget rather than seeking loan financing.
“They’ve decided that it’s the most important thing for their country’s growth for the long term, so they’re actually paying for it out of revenue,” Jennions said, “so when we come to the end of this, they’re not going to be in debt because of it.” R&B