Italy’s ageing infrastructure under scrutiny as Genoa bridge warnings emerge

“In ten years this bridge will collapse” – these are the ominous words of an Italian industry leader whose concerns about the Morandi Bridge in Genoa fell on deaf ears back in 2012.

The stark warning has received much media attention since the long section of the highway dramatically collapsed on Tuesday (14 August) and killed at least 38 people. It’s believed that about 30 vehicles and a few heavy-duty trucks were on the 80m stretch as it crumbled to the ground in stormy weather around 11:30 local time (09:30 GMT).

Since the tragic event, much of the blame has been aimed at the highway operator Autostrade per l'Italia which has since confirmed that foundation work was being carried out at the time but insisted that monitoring work had continued to be undertaken on a quarterly basis, as required by the law.

The Italian government is now demanding that Autostrade rebuild the bridge at the firm's own expense and complete reconstruction within a limited, while also paying for restoration of buildings and areas nearby damaged by the collapse. The highway operator has also been given 15 days to show it met all contractual obligations.

While the cause of the collapse is yet to be confirmed, authorities in the country initially said they believed that a violent storm caused the structure to give way. But in the week engineers have suggested heavy loads and corroding steel could be have played a part in the bridge dismantling.

Architect Diego Zoppi has told the Italian news agency ANSA that a tragedy on the bridge was inevitability. "Fifty years ago there was unlimited confidence in reinforced concrete, Zoppi added. “It was believed to be eternal. With the continuous vibrations of traffic, the cement cracks let air pass through, which reaches the internal metal structure and making it oxidise.”

But it’s the words spoken in December 2012 by Giovanni Calvini, the then president of the local branch of the General Confederation of Italian Industry, Confindustria, that have hit home the hardest. In an interview with Genoa’s local newspaper, Il Secolo XIX, Calvini predicted the fate of the structure.

“In ten years the Morandi Bridge will collapse, and we will all have to queue for hours, and we will remember the name of whoever said no,” Calvini said.

A report released by the company in 2011 even revealed the structure needed constant maintenance with heavy traffic causing the onset of decay. “Queues of cars and the volume of traffic provoke intense decay of the Morandi viaduct structure on a daily basis in the rush hours as it is subject to major demands,” the report states. "The viaduct, therefore, has been subject to continuous maintenance for years".

But while Autostrade have come under intense fire, questions have started to mount around the amount of funding in place to ensure Italy’s highways and bridges are safe for the general public and if Tuesday’s tragedy could be repeated.

According to the National Council for Research, much of the infrastructure built in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s is at risk due to its age. The materials used, such as reinforced concrete or pre-stressed concrete, have a lifespan of 50 to 60 years, experts have said.

Italian politicians like Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party, have attempted to deflect any accusations of underfunding maintenance and reparation by the government by saying the European Union’s fiscal rules have constrained its ability to invest.

“If external constraints prevent us from spending to have safe roads and schools, then it really calls into question whether it makes sense to follow these rules,” he said. “There can be no trade-off between fiscal rules and the safety of Italians.”

However, The European Commission has responded with its own strongly-worded statement and claimed the country has received billions in development funds with plans in place specifically targeting improvements in Genoa.

A spokesperson for president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Thursday said: “We think the time has come to make a few things clear. Over the 2014-2020 period Italy is set to receive around €2.5bn under European structural and investment funds for investment in network infrastructures such as roads or rail. In April 2018 the commission also approved under EU state aid rules an investment plan for Italian motorways which will enable around €8.5bn of investments to go ahead including in the Genoa region.”

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