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EU transport safety and the Morandi Bridge collapse — an admonishment

The Morandi Bridge collapse in Genoa. Source: Pixabay.

On 14 August 2018 a lightning struck a pillar of an old 1960s highway bridge in the Italian city of Genoa. Parts of the bridge collapsed on top of the fluvial and industrial area it overlooked killing 43 people and injuring many more. The disaster has ignited intense debate on transport safety in the EU and infrastructure maintenance, or the lack thereof, in particular. Christian Verzè analyses the events leading up to this tragedy and explains some of the safety requirements of the modern-day EU transport regulations.

By Christian Verzè, private office of ECA Member Oscar Herics

Disaster struck

The collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa (named after the engineer Riccardo Morandi) filled the international headlines in August and September 2018. The worst of it all … the loss of life could have been avoided. Falling from more than 40 meters down onto a dry riverbed, rail tracks and small streets below, 43 people lost their lives and were found among rubble and skeletons of ruined cars and slabs of concrete cement, while the area affected became a ’red zone.’ The 560 people living there were forced to leave their homes.

Italian newspaper welcoming the Morandi bridge as a solution for traffic problems. The cover page of Domenica del Corriere of 1 March 1964.

At this stage it is still unclear who bears the responsibility for the collapse and what caused it. Looking at the facts, this bridge, nicknamed by the citizens of Genoa as their very own ‘Brooklyn Bridge,’ was not conceived for today’s heavy traffic. Moreover, it was built using, as is seen now, outdated designs and techniques. Already within a decade after its completion in 1967, Morandi himself highlighted that the sea breeze and the corrosive fumes of nearby steel mills were causing serious damage to the bridge’s building blocks.

However, there is more to it. Soon after its completion, the structures of the deck began to flex, ending up having a wavy conformation, which, although near the sea, clearly was not the initial intention. Many experts considered these weaknesses as deriving from the heavy use of armoured cement, which, at the time of construction, was known for its plasticity and low construction costs. However, a major problem of the material is that it is easily eroded and, if no regular maintenance is provided, it can crumble by its own weight and structural flaws.

Corroding elements of the Morandi bridge before the collapse. Source: Pixabay.

Who is to blame?

Although the exact causes of the collapse of the Morandi Bridge are still to be determined, the information available points at a combination of structural weaknesses, political ineptness and managerial greed that presumably led to a lack of maintenance. The most pressing questions, of who bears the final responsibility, and if it could have been avoided or not, have not been answered yet. The difficulty here lies in the fact that Morandi Bridge was part of a national highway, thus owned by the State, but that a managing authority had been contracted to operate it.

This raises the question of the safety of other, similar infrastructure. This issue becomes even more pressing since once shiny and ‘avant-garde’ infrastructures increasingly become old and decaying. This happens not only in Italy, but also in many other EU Member States alike. So, how is the situation regulated with regard to EU Transport infrastructures?

The EU transport network

The TEN-T Regulation establishes the EU legal framework for the Trans-European Networks (TENs) which provides the tools for building the EU transport infrastructure. The regulation foresees to build a core network, as well as the development of a secondary comprehensive network. The transport policy contributes to the achievement of other and major EU objectives and towards the development of a competitive and resource efficient transport system, supporting the smooth functioning of the internal market and the strengthening of economic, social and territorial cohesion. The idea is that an improved transport infrastructure will increase the accessibility for both European citizens and businesses across the Union.

There is however one important catch: time. The regulation states that the core network should be completed in 2030, and the comprehensive network in 2050. In order to achieve these results, the EU has provided co-funding to support Member States’ infrastructure investments by way of structural funds and the more recent instrument called the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF).

Safety is key

The TEN-T and CEF policies have key features in terms of security and safety of passengers, and of environmental protection. When establishing new infrastructure, Member States must take all the necessary measures to ensure that the projects are carried out in compliance with relevant EU regulations and national law. Particular attention should be given to, e.g., the environment, safety, and public procurement. The general framework, priorities and objectives of the EU transport policy, as well as who deals with what, are clear. Completing the network on time is the main priority, but maintaining the quality of infrastructure already in place is also essential.

The collapse of the Genoa bridge shows that there still is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to enforcing the conditions regarding safety and maintenance that are set by the TEN –T and CEF regulations, despite the legal safeguards established by the EU. And while travelling in Europe has never been so easy, the EU and its Member States should be extremely cautious of any risk and take the safety of citizens as the outmost priority. The tragic history of the Morandi Bridge highlights the importance of investing both sufficient time and money, not only in the construction of new and prestigious projects, but especially also in the maintenance of transport infrastructures built in the EU.

This article was first published on the January-February 2019 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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