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FEATURE STORY

Breaking Through to the Future, Discovering the Past

May 7, 2014

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Corridor X Highway: construction workers watch both sides of the Progon tunnel being connected near Dimitrovgrad, Serbia.


Highlights
  • A new tunnel has improved the connection between Serbia and Bulgaria at Dimitrovgrad - part of the $388 million World Bank Corridor X Highway Project in Serbia.
  • Part of a 1st century A.D. Roman highway, known as Via Militaris, was uncovered during the construction of the new highway.
  • This find has been excavated using funds from The World Bank Group and plans are underway to develop the site further, including the building of an interpretation center.

A Ray of Light

When the drills stopped turning and the dust had finally settled at the construction site outside Dimitrovgrad, Serbia, on December 4, the silence that followed was just like any other day. However, the beams of light that now streamed through the opening in the mountain at dusk were something completely new.

During the course of their work that day, the construction crew working on the World Bank-funded Corridor X Highway Project finally broke through a wall of rock, connecting the two sides of the Progon tunnel and marking an important milestone in the three-year-old project.  

“The importance of Serbia’s location along this transportation corridor cannot be overstated,” noted Baher El-Hifnawi, Lead Transport Economist at the World Bank, “the completion of this tunnel and the improvements along Corridor X will really help the country further take advantage of the increased traffic along this route.”

Though just under nine kilometers in length, the development of this section of the highway which includes bridges, roads and tunnels is of particular importance to the project - linking Serbia with areas outside of its borders - and furthering the project’s goal of facilitating sustainable economic development in the region by creating the shortest transport route between Western and Central Europe and South East Europe. At a total cost of more than $1.7 billion – $388 million of which is from the World Bank – this project represents the largest loan by the World Bank in Serbia.

The improvements to this transportation corridor will help improve efficiency along the route and is expected to reduce costs to users by at least 10%. The development of new routes, such as the Progon tunnel, will also create new transportation and economic linkages.

Crossroads of South East Europe

While this latest breakthrough in the project represents the first time this borderland between Serbia and Bulgaria will be linked via a tunnel, this accomplishment is merely the latest improvement to a transportation corridor that dates back more than two thousand years. It is not uncommon to hear Serbia referred to as the “cross-roads” of South East Europe and the uncovering of a section of an ancient Roman highway during the early stages of this project exemplifies why this title is so apt.

When the project first broke ground in 2010, work was halted almost as soon as it had begun. Preliminary excavations along the proposed route had uncovered a section of an ancient Roman road, commonly known as Via Militaris (the military highway). This discovery triggered World Bank safeguards that had been built into the project precisely for this kind of event and prompted the team to begin working with the Serbian Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments to preserve this window into antiquity.

This ancient highway, much like its modern counterpart being constructed today, was designed to connect Serbia – then part of the Roman Empire – to other areas of Asia Minor and the Middle East. This route still represents the shortest link between western and southeastern Europe with Turkey and other eastern regions, and this project will serve to improve economic traffic between Belgrade and Istanbul today, just as it did between Singidunum (ancient Belgrade) and Constantinople (ancient Istanbul) in the 1st century A.D. 


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A window to the ancient past: the old Via Militaris road uncovered on the route of the new and modern Corridor X highway

World Bank

" The breakthrough in the Progon tunnel is a welcome achievement in the progressive completion of an important transport corridor in South East Europe. When complete, Corridor X will provide an upgraded link stretching over 1,500 km from Austria and Hungary to Greece and Turkey, and will foster regional integration and trade, and help increase prosperity in the region. "

Fiona Collin

Senior Transport Engineer in charge of the Corridor X Project

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Corridor X: archaelogical excavations in Serbia

World Bank

Window to the Past

Although construction on the new road have since resumed, this new highway will not disturb the old one and funds have been made available through the World Bank to help ensure archeologists, historians, and experts around the country can utilize this uncovered window to gaze into the country’s past.

The surprisingly well-preserved remains unearthed on other locations during this project showed that this ancient road was constructed of large blocks of stone and was nearly 10 meters wide - large enough for two carts to pass in opposite directions as they travelled the more than 900 kilometers of road. While not entirely unexpected, this discovery provided the opportunity for the World Bank team to work with representatives from the Serbian Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments and other agencies to research this find and learn more about this well-traveled transportation route. 

“This is a fascinating discovery,” says Nikola Ille, Senior Environmental Specialist at the World Bank. “I think this confirms the important role this transportation corridor has played throughout centuries and provides a unique opportunity to learn more about the past.”

Moving toward the future, mirroring the past

With four lanes and anticipated speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour, the Progon Tunnel is being built to accommodate the transportation needs of tomorrow. The discovery of the Via Militaris during the construction of this modern motorway, however, serves as a reminder that while the techniques and equipment being used to develop this corridor are modern, the reasons for employing them are firmly rooted in the past.


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