The KRG has established three main priorities in order to boost the Region’s transportation sector. Firstly, the government is seeking to continue to develop the Region as an air cargo hub. With three modern international airports soon to be in operation, Kurdistan has the potential to become a logistics hub for southwest Asia and beyond, and an essential node between Europe and East Asia. Secondly, the KRG has prioritized upgrading its road systems, as it believes a network of well-paved roads could be the key to economic development and the expansion of commerce and tourism. Lastly, it has begun the research and development programs aimed at improving mass transportation systems. Implementing such initiatives could provide the residents of the Region with access to employment, community resources, medical care, and recreational opportunities without forcing them to rely on private transportation.

Roads

The Kurdistan Region currently has a total road network of 14,841 kilometers. This network includes arterial roadways (which link governorate centers with each other and with border crossings), secondary roads (which link areas within districts and subdistricts), and rural roads (which link the residential developments in rural areas with each other and with arterial roadways). According to Ministry of Housing and Reconstruction (MOHR) figures, rural roadways (47%) constitute the largest majority of paved roads in Kurdistan, with secondary roads (27%) and arterial roads (26%) comprising smaller percentages. There are no highways presently available to the residents of the Region, a fact that the KRG hopes to rectify going forward.

Of the three governorates of the Kurdistan Region, Slemani has the largest total road network at 5,673 kilometers. Erbil has the second largest network at 5,391 kilometers and Duhok the third, with a total of 3,777 kilometers. The most recent data indicates that the total length of all bridges in the Region is approximately 18,000 meters. The Slemani governorate remains the only area in the Kurdistan Region with measurable tunnel systems (a total of approximately 3,230 meters as of early 2013).

Total Estimated Investment in Transportation Projects

Investment Activity2013-20172018-2020Total (2013-2020)
International and Inter-Regional Transport$189 million$1.1 billion$1.3 billion
Inter-Urban Transport Within the Region$872 million$348 million$1.2 billion
Intra-City Urban Transport$1.5 billion$1.2 billion$2.7 billion
Total$2.6 billion$2.6 billion$5.2 billion

Despite the rapid growth of these roadway networks, the supply does not, at present, meet total demand (particularly in regards to the rural areas). According to international standards, for every 100 inhabitants per square kilometer, there should be 1 km/km2 of roads. However, the current roadway density for the Kurdistan Region is approximately 0.1 km/km2. To successfully increase this figure to 4 km/km2, the network would need to be approximately 44,720 km. As a result of the limited development of arterial roadways, travel between the governorates remains time consuming. To improve travel time and increase the mobility of the residents of the Region, construction of multi-lane highways is essential.

The Kurdistan Region occupies a strategic location between Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Because it is a landlocked area, Kurdistan now relies heavily on its transport links with Turkey and Iran, as well as its modern international airports.

In addition, the number of automobiles presently in operation in the Kurdistan Region has skyrocketed over the past few years. It is estimated that there are between 1.1-1.3 million vehicles currently in use in the Region, which has a total population of 5.3 million. As emphasized by Tahir Abdullah, Deputy Governor of Erbil, in 2007, there were only about 35,000 cars in operation in Erbil. Today, that number is around 400,000. Similarly, the number of taxis in operation in the Region has increased dramatically (45,000 in Erbil and 30,000 in Slemani). Demographic shifts from rural to urban areas have played a significant part in this change. Although the population growth in the Region’s three major cities has continued exponentially, the availability of public transportation has not. A lack of modern public transportation, combined with widely available, inexpensive personal vehicles, has led to considerable congestion on the Region’s roads. “Right now, most of the roads connecting the major cities are only one-lane roads,” notes Kamaran Ahmed Abdullah, Minister of Housing and Reconstruction. In 2003, on some of the major roads, there was an average of 200 to 500 vehicles per day. Today, the average is more like 5,000 to 8,000 per day. So, one-lane roads are not enough. The capacity needs to increase.”

To ensure that such development happens in a timely and organized manner, the MOHR developed and is in the process of implementing a 20-year, dual-stage strategic master plan for road, bridge, and tunnel construction. The first phase, the construction of all two-lane highways connecting the major cities of the Region, has a targeted completion date of 2017 and requires a budget of approximately $2 billion. The second stage, which is expected to require approximately $6 billion in investment, calls for the commencement of privately financed expressways that will most likely employ toll systems. A large-scale ring road project connecting Erbil with Kirkuk and Mosul by means of a modern, six-lane highway is also underway. The system will be under the management of engineering firm KCI, with assistance provided by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).

In addition to this strategy, the Ministry of Planning (MOP) has developed plans to implement a national paving program for secondary roads in order to ensure that all such systems are not only completed according to international standards but also well maintained. As part of this program, the MOP is also seeking to “upgrade construction standards for input materials to increase durability of the new roads”. Lastly, to combat the natural wearing down of these roadways, the MOP has called for the creation of a road maintenance fund to be supported by appropriate institutional and regulatory frameworks.

Airports

The Kurdistan Region currently features two modern airport facilities: Erbil International Airport (EIA) and Slemani International Airport (SIA). A third international airport, located in the Duhok governorate, is presently under construction.

EIA was opened in 2011, and currently has a capacity of 3 million passengers per year. Since 2011, EIA has developed into an important hub for business and a potential gateway to the rest of the Middle East. In 2012, 947,6000 passengers utilized the airport (a 53% increase from 2011). Based on current estimates, rates for 2013 are expected to increase by 35%. In addition, a total of 27,859 tons of cargo passed through EIA (a 54% increase from 2011). The facility currently connects the Kurdistan Region to 24 airports in 14 countries by 23 different airlines.

The new international airport in Duhok, updated cargo facility at Slemani International airport, and already strong shipping industry at Erbil International Airport means the Kurdistan Region could soon become a cargo hub for both the MENA region and further abroad.

Inaugurated in July 2005, SIA has also seen significant growth in recent years. In 2012, 248,152 passengers utilized the airport (a 15% increase from 2011). This year, airport officials have targeted similar growth, and expect approximately 300,000 travelers to pass through SIA in 2013. The facility currently connects the Kurdistan Region to 19 airports in 12 countries by 14 different airlines.

However, these figures are expected to increase, as SIA is aggressively pursuing a greater role in regional cargo transportation. Duhok International Airport (DIA) is scheduled to open in 2015, and is expected to facilitate increased international air travel for both the residents of the Region and those of Kurdistan’s neighbors, who might otherwise not have access to an international facility. As with EIA, construction at the new airport is being undertaken by a joint venture of two Turkish firms, Makyol and Cengiz, and is being supervised by a team from South Korea’s Incheon International Airport.

Railways

In early 2011, the MOTC signed contracts with three international firms to design tramway systems for the three major cities of the Kurdistan Region. According to Minister Jonson S. Ayo, the Erbil tramway design was completed in 2012 and will feature four lines and a total of 87 stations. The designs for Duhok and Slemani are expected to also be finalized by the end of 2013.

However, questions remain regarding the financing of the 150 km system, which will require extensive involvement from a variety of different economic sectors. It is expected that the cost of the entire network could reach or exceed $4 billion, with the Erbil network alone requiring $1.7 billion in investment. As such, the KRG is contemplating private sector involvement to ensure uniform completion of the project. If the government were to handle the construction, then the system would most likely be implemented in stages over a longer period of time.

In addition to the tramway system, there have also been efforts made to begin establishing a strong railway network in the Kurdistan Region. As noted by the MOP Regional Development Strategy, in regards to both passenger and cargo services, railway transport represents an essential activity in the transportation sector. A large amount of the imports and exports for both Kurdistan and greater Iraq take place at the Region’s border points. Expanding the railway network of the Kurdistan Region would allow for a greater amount of cargo to be transported over longer distance at a lesser cost, thereby promoting greater trade revenue.

For its part, the MOTC has prioritized connecting the three governorates of the Region with other provinces in Iraq. According to Minister Ayo, the Kirkuk-Slemani route has already been designed, and a similar plan for the Duhok-Mosul line will be finished in the near future. However, instability in federal Iraq has limited progress on the implementation of these routes, and funding from the central government in Baghdad seems increasingly unlikely.

The KRG is also pursuing opportunities to connect the railway system of the Kurdistan Region with those of its neighbors. The plan calls for an initial connection at the Iranian border, which would then connect directly to Slemani. From there, the route would run to Erbil, Duhok, and Zakho, before culminating in a connection to the Turkish rail network. In theory, the KRG would finance the project. However, the considerable investment required to fund the project will delay its implementation for the foreseeable future, and will likely drive the government to pursue private financing and operating via foreign companies.