Milan — The collapse of a highway viaduct in northwestern Italy has underscored the country’s failure to come to grips with the ageing infrastructure spanning some of its most fragile regions.
A day after a landslide ripped away part of the viaduct on the A6 highway between Savona and Turin, in the Liguria region, the government rushed to make new pledges on safety.
“We must do all we can to give Liguria a special plan for infrastructure security,” infrastructure minister Paola De Micheli of the centre-left Democratic Party said.
But similar promises have been made before. Pledges by the previous government, led such as the current one by premier Giuseppe Conte, to form a new agency to monitor bridges and tunnels after the fatal 2018 collapse of the Morandi span in Genoa have made little progress.
Italy has proven incapable of spending money where it is needed. The country’s regions are using only a fifth of funds allocated for protection from hydrogeological risks, because of bureaucratic red tape, according to the national audit court.
Italy moved to shut down two viaducts on the A26 highway running north/south to Liguria for safety checks, Corriere della Sera reported on Tuesday. The closures were ordered by Genoa-based prosecutors based on information compiled as part of an investigation into the Morandi accident.
The proposed new oversight agency, dubbed Ansfisa, is still far from seeing the light of day, according to two officials who asked not to be named discussing confidential matters.
Setting up new government bodies takes time and involves numerous bureaucratic hurdles, one of the officials said, adding that public and private operators should be forced to invest more, including on technologies such as cheap risk-detection sensors.
Decades after the economic boom of the 1950s and 60s saw new highways and bridges crop up across the country, Italy is struggling to come to terms with a legacy of ageing concrete, and with the spectre of new disasters waiting to happen.
After the 2018 Genoa bridge collapse, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the biggest partner in the ruling coalition, was quick to push to revoke concessions granted to operators who fail to maintain bridges and roads.
“These are ironclad contracts which were set up with the knowledge that sooner or later someone with good sense would get into those ministries asking, ‘what the hell have you done?’” Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio said.
Five Star and the Democrats have long had policy differences on concessions, with the latter favouring a review of contract conditions rather than revocation.
Societa Iniziative Autostradali e Servizi SpA, known as Sias, manages the roadway where the bridge collapsed on Sunday. The Morandi bridge was on a stretch of highway managed by a division of the Benetton family’s Atlantia SpA.
In some cases, there is also confusion about local vs regional or even national jurisdiction.
“There are about 43,000 road bridges in Italy, and responsibility is so fragmented between public and private operators, regions, provinces and towns that for more than 1,600 of them, we don’t know who’s responsible,” said Oliviero Baccelli, professor of transportation politics and economics at Milan’s Bocconi University.
Compounding the challenge, roads and bridges built throughout often mountainous terrain, much of it in areas where steep hillsides are becoming more unstable in extreme weather.
“We need to monitor not just the infrastructure itself but also the surrounding area,” geologist Antonello Fiore, head of the Italian Society for Environmental Geology, said of the northern regions of Liguria and Piedmont.
“You can have the most stable viaduct from a structural point of view, but a landslide will rip it down all the same.”