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Italy slams bridge company, EU for deadly collapse

Andrea Leoni, AFP | Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (C) during a visit to the Morandi bridge accident site Aug. 15, 2018.

Italy's populist government intensified its attacks Thursday on the bridge operator it blames for the viaduct collapse that killed 38 people in Genoa and suggested EU budgets prevented Italy from spending enough on infrastructure safety.

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Anger is mounting over the tragedy and the structural problems that have dogged the decades-old Morandi bridge, which buckled without warning on Tuesday, sending about 35 cars and several trucks plunging 45 metres (150 feet) on to railway tracks below along with huge chunks of concrete.

The Italian government has accused infrastructure giant Autostrade per L'Italia of failing to invest in sufficient maintenance -- a claim the company denies -- and said it would seek to revoke its lucrative contracts.

The government launched an investigation into the company on Thursday and has given Autostrade 15 days to show it had previously met all its contractual obligations to ensure the bridge's proper functioning.

Shares in Atlantia, the holding company of Autostrade, slumped more than 21 percent Thursday in the wake of the barrage of criticism.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Thursday demanded that the company offer up to 500 million euros ($570 million) to help families and local government deal with the aftermath of the disaster.

"If we've put up five million euros, they should offer 500 million," he told reporters.

"There needs to be an immediate, concrete and tangible signal for these families: they should put their hands on their hearts and in their wallets."

EU denies budget cuts undermined infrastructure spending

Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister in Italy’s anti-establishment government, also suggested the country's infrastructure would have been in better shape had it not been for spending caps policed by Brussels and EU member states.

A senior EU official on Thursday however dismissed the suggestion saying Italy was getting 2.5 billion euros from EU coffers for investments in network infrastructure in 2014-2020.

"The EU has encouraged investments in infrastructure in Italy," European Commission spokesman Christian Spahr said, adding that the Commission also cleared a state aid plan last April for Italian motorways that would enable some 8.5 billion euros of investment.

"The agreed fiscal rules leave flexibility to any member state to set specific policy priorities and this can be the development and maintenance of infrastructure," he added.

"There is also flexibility within the Stability and Growth Pact and Italy has been one of the main beneficiaries of this flexibility," he said of the EU's rules on public spending.

Italy is now working on its 2019 budget, which must be presented to the European Commission by mid-October. Financial markets have grown concerned that Italy will seek to break clear of EU spending restraints.

Italy's public debt, at around 132 percent of gross domestic product, is already the highest in the euro zone after Greece's.

Autostrade denies scrimping

Genoa's Morandi bridge was completed in 1967 but has been riddled with structural problems since its construction, which has led to expensive maintenance and severe criticism from engineering experts.

Its collapse during a storm prompted the government to announce a year-long state of emergency in the region and day of mourning Saturday, as hundreds of people remain displaced from apartments beneath the remaining shard of bridge.

Italian officials have said the government would seek to revoke Autostrade's contract for the A10 motorway, which includes the bridge, while a transport ministry spokesperson told AFP the government was considering revoking all other motorway contracts awarded to the company.

Autostrade, which estimates it will take five months to rebuild the bridge, denies scrimping on motorway maintenance, saying it has invested over one billion euros a year in "safety, maintenance and strengthening of the network" since 2012.

Atlantia slammed the government for threatening to revoke its contracts "without any verification of the material causes of the accident".

It warned that the government would have to refund the group the value of the contract, which runs until at least 2038.

The incident is the latest in a string of bridge collapses in Italy, where infrastructure generally is showing the effects of a faltering economy.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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