When ethnic violence erupted last summer in northern Kosovo, builders of the country’s first modern motorway found the project’s sole supply quarry inaccessible behind roadblocks. The U.S.-Turkish construction team scoured the Balkans for aggregate and secured an alternate source just in time to continue work. The team recently completed the highway’s first section.

After a bloody war leading to independence from Serbia three years ago, tension remains high between Kosovo’s Serb minority and the majority of Albanian origin. Thousands of NATO-led troops are charged with peacekeeping. Known as KFOR, or the Kosovo Force, the peacekeepers have been struggling to quell violent demonstrations in the ethnically Serb north.

Having opened the first 38 kilometers of highway in November, the motorway’s equal joint venture of San Francisco-based Bechtel Inc. and Turkey’s Enka Construction & Industry Co. Inc., Istanbul, is now pushing north through the tranquil southern plains toward the capital Prishtina. The contractor aims to complete the $700-million project’s remaining 46.5 km by late 2013.

Designed to link Prishtina with Albania, the project is Kosovo’s “first infrastructure project of this standard and size,” says Fehmi Mujota, the government’s infrastructure minister. For a country of some two million people, the motorway represents a huge investment, accounting for a fifth of the ministry’s 2012 capital.

Making Good on Past Work

For the joint venture, the project is the most recent in a series of highway contacts across the Balkans. Experience gained in the politically challenging region helped the joint venture win the Kosovo motorway, says Mike Adams, Bechtel’s president for civil infrastructure.

Adams appears optimistic about winning more highway work in Balkan nations. “They all have motorway programs. The question is which [programs] will go ahead and how they are going to be tendered,” he says. “Southeastern Europe has been and remains a place of tremendous infrastructure needs.”

The joint venture's first project was Turkey’s 240-km Gerede-Ankara road in the 1990s, says Özger Inal. He is Enka’s main board member responsible for highways, and he is currently acting as the joint venture’s deputy project manager on the Kosovo highway. “Many of us … have grown from that project,” Inal says.

Following the Gerede-Ankara job, the two firms collaborated in Croatia on a 156-km highway that opened in 2004. Five years later, they completed a 61-km road in Albania. While these projects appear to have gone relatively well, Romania’s 415-km Autostrada Transilvania has been more troublesome. Early payment delays, land acquisition problems and other administrative snags allowed only the first 42 km to be opened in 2009, five years after breaking ground. The joint venture plans to complete that project over the next couple of years.

The Bechtel-Enka team’s bid for the Kosovo project was based on preliminary designs prepared previously for the government. The winning bid included an alternative alignment of the approach to Prishtina. The variant was some six kilometers longer than the reference design but avoided mountainous terrain, cutting nearly $390 million from the original cost, says Darren Mort, the joint venture’s project manager.