YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — The Armenian government plans to introduce first-ever road tolls in Armenia in a bid to complete an expensive project to upgrade the country’s key highways, Transport and Communications Minister Vahan Martirosian revealed on Tuesday.

The project, supposedly launched in 2009, has fallen behind schedule, with less than 10 percent of the national highways stretching over 550 kilometers to Georgia and Iran refurbished and expanded so far. Work on two other road sections is due to be finished in the next few years. These roadworks are mostly financed from loans extended to the government by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Martirosian insisted that the government is committed to rebuilding the remaining highways mainly passing through the mountainous Vayots Dzor and Syunik provinces in the country’s southeast. He estimated that that will require as much as $1.5 billion in funding, a figure equivalent to roughly half of the Armenian state budget.

Martirosian said the government hopes to attract the investments from private firms, rather than seek more loans from the ADB or other international lenders. “The decision has already been made and we are working in that direction,” he told a news conference.

This means, the minister went on, that the new highways stretching over 350 kilometers from the southern town of Ararat to the Iranian border would be toll roads operated by private firms. He said they would run parallel to the existing toll-free roads.

Martirosian added that the government is already holding preliminary talks with potential private investors but did not name them. As part of the same effort, it plans to enact a new law on public-private partnerships, he said.

The new figures cited by Martirosian raise the total cost of the North-South transport project to more than $2 billion.Armenian officials estimated it at less than $1 billion when they negotiated the first loan agreement with the ADB in 2009. The Manila-based development bank has disbursed $330 million to date.

The main official rationale for the highway upgrades is to facilitate the landlocked country’s access to the Georgian and Iranian ports. It is also meant to enable Iran to use Armenian and Georgian territory for large-scale freight shipments to and from Europe.

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