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Genoa bridge collapse sounds the alarm on aging infrastructure in Europe

Piero Cruciatti, AFP | This general view taken on August 15, 2018, shows abandoned vehicles on the Morandi motorway bridge after a section collapsed in the northwestern Italian city of Genoa.

The collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy highlights the challenges of maintaining aging infrastructure and the importance of proper inspection and upkeep.

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It’s too soon to determine exactly what caused the deadly collapse of the 51-year-old Morandi Bridge, which had an unusual and, from a maintenance perspective, problematic design, but experts hope the tragedy will serve as a wakeup call for authorities everywhere.

Governments tend to have a “ribbon-cutting” approach to bridges, said Barry Colford, vice president at engineering firm AECON and former bridgemaster and chief engineer of the Forth Road Bridge in Edinburgh, Scotland, inaugurating new bridges to great fanfare and then effectively forgetting about them. But bridges, especially aging ones built in the 1960s and 1970s, when most large crossings in Europe and the US were constructed, require constant upkeep.

“Governments have to realize these bridges need a lot of maintenance,” Colford said. “That’s the message that engineers have been trying to get out for a long time … If it doesn’t happen then you will get tragedies.”

It’s as yet unclear that lack of maintenance is at the heart of the Morandi tragedy, but Italian newspapers reported Friday that an engineering study commissioned by Autostrade per l’Italia, which operates the bridge, warned about the state of the concrete-encased cable stays that held up the structure. Italian newspapers had also written that the bridge was scheduled for a €20 million refit of two vertical support structures, including the one that collapsed.

Autostrade didn’t immediately comment on Friday’s news reports but had earlier said that it had monitored the bridge on a quarterly basis, as legally required, and had hired external experts to carry out additional checks. The Italian Transport Ministry has given the company 15 days to show that it had met all its contractual obligations.

“The company had been granted a concession by the government,” said Ian Firth, a structural engineer with consulting firm COWI and former president of the Institution of Structural Engineers. “The conditions of that concession will include requirements on maintenance so that when the concession period comes to an end the asset is handed back to the government in good condition and in the meanwhile the traveling public is kept safe.”

When bridges are being operated by private companies, the contracts are key. “I’ve been on both public and private side of things, and it all comes down to the contract,” Colford said.

Private management can work well, if the contract is properly structured. “The key is writing the contract so that it is favorable to both parties, fair to both parties,” Colford said. “The problems arise if there’s not enough money allotted by the government to carry out the inspection and the maintenance … there has to be enough that the contractor can carry out the inspection.”

And then those inspections need to be audited by an outside company. “The question comes, who is policing the system, who is checking,” Firth said.

In Italy, more than two dozen companies have been given concessions to manage the country’s 3,730 miles of highway, nearly 650 miles of bridges and viaducts and roughly 540 miles of tunnels. Such arrangements are not unusual. Countries throughout Europe often contract private companies to maintain and operate bridges, or establish public authorities to do so.

Firth stressed that, by and large, bridges are reliable and collapses such as that in Genoa are “very, very rare”.

Despite the infrequency of such tragedies, governments take the safety of their bridges for granted at their peril. As the spans age, they will require more and more upkeep and that means bigger budgets. “That’s a challenge, an aging infrastructure,” Colford said. “They need more funding because as they get older the inspection and maintenance requirements can only increase.”

But getting politicians to include infrastructure spending in their budgets can be difficult. “I always used to say, there are no votes in bridge maintenance,” said Colford. “Over the years, there has been inadequate funding. It has always been a fight, and that applies whether it’s the US or the UK or mainland Europe … We’re competing against education and healthcare. It is a difficult sell.”

That tension was evident in Italy, where total investment and maintenance spending on transport infrastructure fell by 58 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In that sense, Genoa should be a warning to politicians everywhere. “Unfortunately, it seems to take a tragedy before governments realize that you have to spend on infrastructure to minimize the risk of tragedy,” Colford said.

Without proper upkeep, there may well be other bridge failures. A survey published this week by Italy’s CNR engineering group cited four other major highway overpass collapses in the last two years that were related to structural weakness and caused three deaths and four injuries. A recent report commissioned by the French Ministry of Transport concluded that seven percent of the nation’s infrastructure such as tunnels and bridges need renovation work. And last year Germany’s Federal Highway Research Institute found that 12.4 percent of the country’s road bridges were in bad condition.

“The fact of life is that all bridges need to have maintenance and therefore budgets need to be made available for maintenance,” Firth said. “It’s not particularly sexy but it needs to be done.”

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