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Italy's crumbling motorways: how the Genoa bridge collapse exposed a national scandal

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Italy's crumbling motorways: how the Genoa bridge collapse exposed a national scandal
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The state of Italian motorways is a national scandal. There are about twenty badly-damaged motorway bridges in Italy currently under investigation. There are also 200 illegal tunnels, which don't comply with European standards and 1,000 viaducts where ownership is unclear and which haven't been monitored for years. Riddled with viaducts and tunnels, Liguria, in the north of Italy, is the focus of this crisis.

Credit: Monica Pinna
Viaduct TecciCredit: Monica Pinna

The collapse of the Morandi viaduct in August 2018, which killed 43 people, was the point at which a long series of incidents became linked. Before the collapse of the Morandi viaduct, there had been a series of worrying incidents.

  • In 2016, a flyover close to Milan collapsed under the weight of a truck, one person died.

  • In 2017 a bridge collapsed near Ancona killing two people.

  • In 2019, a motorway bridge fell on the A6 following a landslide.

  • In December 2019, the ceiling of a tunnel collapsed on the A26 not far from Genoa. Luckily, there were no victims.

Credit: Guardia di Finanza
Morandi bridge collapsing - August 2018Credit: Guardia di Finanza

Luca Ternavasio is the founder of Autostrade Chiare, a citizen's pressure group that has attracted over 60,000 members since its creation in December.

The Tecci viaduct crosses the Savona-Turin highway. Its infrastructure is a cause for concern for one of the structural engineers who first warned about the conditions of viaducts in the area.

“They've been making savings on the maintenance of this road for decades," says ex-structural engineer, Paolo Forzano. "Ever since this road was built, it hasn’t had much maintenance at all. We need to have proof backed by technical data that the situation is safe - that we have an infrastructure we can trust.”

People living in the shadow of the Bisagno viaduct live in fear of a Morandi-style collapse happening again. The bridge is considered ”structurally sound”, but is due to undergo a three and a half year restoration project. Chiara Ottonello has lived there for 12 years and now dreams of moving out.

Monica Pinna
Bisagno viaductMonica PinnaPinna, Monica

The bridge was opened in 1967 and she says it is literally crumbling over her head and she is scared to live there.

“We have a collection of objects which have fallen from the bridge," she says. "They fell onto our houses, our gardens, our vegetable gardens. These are places where we should feel relaxed and safe.”

Despite the works that are planned, Luca Ternavasio is skeptical.

“We were also told everything was fine with the Morandi bridge, but it collapsed," he explains. "There are bridges showing very similar problems, this is why we don’t believe the motorway operator."

We were also told everything was fine with the Morandi bridge, but it collapsed
Luca Ternavasio, founder Autostrade Chiare

Ongoing investigations show the main motorway operator, Autostrade per l’Italia, has lied for years about the state of its infrastructure. Ivan Bixio is one of the chief investigators into the collapse of the Morandi bridge.

Monica Pinna
Ivan Bixio - Guardia di FinanzaMonica Pinna

“Starting with the Morandi case, and moving on to how controls in general are carried out, we have found the same falsification methods on different viaducts," he says. "Some inspections were only partially carried out while with others the documents were clearly fake. This happened both before and after the Morandi bridge."

Magistrates have discovered that Autostrade per l’Italia used a subordinate company to carry out inspections on its motorway network. In short, the operator was monitoring itself.

Credit: AFP-TV

The Italian government has a total of 25 toll road concession agreements. It’s one of the most complex systems in Europe. Autostrade per l’Italia is the leading Italian private operator with over 3,000 kilometres of highway. It’s controlled by Atlantia, which belongs to the Benetton family. This company, like other operators, has financed parties of all political colours.

Luca Ternavasio believes the government has failed to do its job properly starting with the concession agreements it signed.

Concession agreements

"There is a concession agreement that literally says even in the event of total negligence or insolvency on the part of the concessionaire, the government is required to refund the lost profits until the end of the concession agreement," he explains. "So it's like signing a cashier's check worth around €20bn to a private company that manages public property."

Italy has ended up on Brussel's radar several times for having extended concessions sometimes for more than 20 years without putting them out to tender. And on terms that are too favourable to operators.

The Government is looking at suspending the concession awarded to Autostrade per l'Italia and wants to tighten up the monitoring system. So far it has created a supervisory agency, which is not yet operational, and has sent a 'super inspector' to check the state of the bridges and tunnels at risk.

Felice Morisco of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transportation outlines the government's reponse to the problem.

“Under law, control of the concessions are the responsibility of the motorway operator," he says. "The number of technicians in the ministry is very limited because we shouldn’t be doing this specific type of activity. These inspections qualify as those of an 'extraordinary nature'."

It's also exceptional just how rapidly the new bridge in Genova is being built. It will be opened this spring, financed by Autostrade per l’Italia. The operator appears to be acting quickly to repair both its roads and its image.

Autrostrade per l'Italia's investment set to increase threefold

About a hundred construction sites are ongoing on Ligurian motorways and the main operator has announced an investment plan that has almost tripled for the next four years. This is expected to reach €7.5bn spread out between investments and maintenance.

Monica Pinna
New Genoa bridge worksiteMonica Pinna

“We estimate that within three, four, five months, we will have inspected all the tunnels," says Alessandro Damiani, technical director, Lombardi Engineering. "Both the tunnels built between 1930 and 1979, which are not watertight and those built between 1980 and now, that are watertight but have no water drainage."

With roadworks ongoing, those who use the highways regularly continue to question what they see. They are afraid there are still crooked deals and deadly accidents further down the road.