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Italian motorway operator under fire after deadly bridge collapse

Valery Hache, AFP | Abandoned vehicles on the Morandi motorway bridge a day after a section collapsed in Genoa.
4 min

Italy's government blamed the firm that operated the collapsed Genoa bridge for the disaster that has claimed at least 39 lives, as rescuers dug through mountains of crushed concrete for survivors.


The Italian group Atlantia, which operates half of the country's motorways, is under fire following the collapse of a massive section of the bridge on Tuesday.

Its prime asset is Autostrade per l'Italia, which according to information published by Atlantia manages 2,855 km of Italian toll highways directly and another 165 km through five subsidiaries with separate concessions, including the A10 highway where a segment of the overpass collapsed.

The 50-year-old bridge, part of a toll motorway linking the port city of Genoa with southern France, collapsed during torrential rain on Tuesday, sending dozens of vehicles crashing onto a riverbed, a railway and two warehouses.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took aim at Autostrade per l'Italia during a news conference on Wednesday, saying the firm had been responsible for ensuring safety on the bridge and that the government would not wait for the outcome of a current criminal investigation into the disaster before taking action.

Conte also declared a one-year state of emergency, which he said was made after a request from regional authorities.

"A cabinet meeting took place in which we have decreed a 12-month state of emergency and made available a first allocation worth five million euros for the national emergencies fund," said Conte.

Italian government intends to fine firm

The Italian government has said it intends to fine Autostrade per l'Italia 150 million euros and cancel its concession. The transport ministry told AFP it will first look at whether it was justified to revoke the concession for the A10 motorway and then look at all the other concessions.

Atlantia said on its website that it has spent 11.4 billion euros to improve 923 km of Italian motorways, and was waiting for approval from authorities to build a bypass around Genoa.

The company also said it had done regular, sophisticated checks on the bridge structure before the disaster, relying on "companies and institutions which are world leaders in testing and inspections" and that these had provided reassuring results.

"These outcomes have formed the basis for maintenance work approved by the Transport Ministry in accordance with the law and the terms of the concession agreement," it said.

Anger and disbelief

A day after the accident, there was anger and disbelief in Italy that such a critical structure could have simply given way in bad weather.

Witness Ivan, 37, who was evacuated on Tuesday from a nearby building where he works, described the collapse as unbelievable.

"To see a pylon come down like papier-mâché is an incredible thing," he said. "It's been a lifetime that we've known there were problems. It is in continual maintenance."

"In the '90s they added some reinforcements on one part, but also underneath you can see rust."

The motorway operator said work to shore up the bridge's foundation was being carried out at the time.

Autostrade per l'Italia admitted in 2011 that the bridge had been suffering from degradation due to heavy traffic.

Operations across Europe, Asia, South America

Atlantia's history is intertwined with Autostrade per l'Italia, which was privatised in 1999 and acquired by investors including the Benetton group. In 2003 the motorway and other infrastructure assets were separated and the holding company, which eventually took the name Atlantia, was listed on the Milan stock exchange.

Atlantia owns 88 percent of Autostrade per l'Italia, which accounted for just under two-thirds of its 5.97 billion euros in revenue last year. Atlantia earned a net profit of nearly 1.2 billion euros for the year.

Overall it operates more than 5,000 km of motorways in Brazil, Chile, India and Poland.

It also operates the Mount Blanc tunnel and recently became the top shareholder in Getlink, which operates Channel Tunnel, buying a 15.5 percent stake that controls over a quarter of voting rights for nearly 1.1 billion euros.

Atlantia stands to soon gain more motorways.

It recently teamed up with the German-Spanish group Hochtief-ACS to buy for 18.2 billion euros the Spanish firm Abertis, which calls itself the world's top motorway operator with 8,600 kilometres of toll roads in 15 countries.

Atlantia will own 50 percent plus one share of the joint venture that will own Abertis.

The Italian group entered the airport management business in 2013 with contracts for Rome's two airports, Fiumicino and Ciampino.

In 2016, Atlantia together with French electricity firm EDF bought 60 percent stakes held by the French state in the airports in the Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez airports.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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