C&B Notes

A Bottleneck of Epic Proportions

Frequently taken for granted in the West, infrastructure shortcomings and bottlenecks in many places in the world have a huge economic impact.  The crumbling Salang Tunnel in Afghanistan is an extreme example.

Considered a marvel of engineering when it was built decades ago, the Salang serves a critical role in this corner of the world.  Carved from the rock of the Hindu Kush mountain range, it is the only viable land route linking the capital, Kabul, to northern Afghanistan.  According to the U.S. military, some 80% of the country’s commerce passes through it.

But if it is Afghanistan’s main economic artery, the Salang Tunnel is in desperate need of bypass surgery.  Opened in 1964 by the Soviets as a Cold War showpiece, the corridor is rapidly falling apart.  Passage isn’t for the faint of heart — or the short of breath.  Tire chains have torn apart the surface of the road.  The original ventilation system was destroyed in a deadly tunnel fire.  Over 6,000 vehicles travel through the Salang every day — on a road originally designed to handle 1,000.  The U.S. and Afghan governments are now pricing out alternatives to the tunnel, including digging a new shaft parallel to the existing one, or tunneling through another valley northeast of the Salang.  Both options would take years, and hundreds of millions of dollars.

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For now, traffic snarls are legendary.  At the tunnel’s south entrance, cars and trucks slowly plow through the potholed road in low gear, filling the tunnel with a noxious mix of exhaust fumes and dirty road spray.  The dimly lighted passage has no center dividing line: Afghan drivers simply pass slower trucks, bearing straight for the headlights of oncoming vehicles before swerving back to the right.  It takes around 10 minutes to crawl through the rock passage before light and fresh air emerge at the other end of the tunnel…

“The pass is an important strategic route for Afghanistan’s transportation sector,” said Azarakhsh Hafizi, CEO of the Afghan Fuel Importers Association.  “But you can’t call it a proper highway.”  single road closure on the Salang Pass, he said, can cause price swings in Kabul, as some traders hoard fuel and drive up the cost of gasoline and heating oil.  As a result, Afghan authorities are reluctant to close the road, even for routine maintenance.