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Morandi Bridge: How to avoid a repeat of ‘everyone’s worst nightmare’

The fatal collapse indicates a public-private failure. But confronting the formidable challenges of maintaining ageing infrastructure will require more – not less – public-private cooperation.

Almost immediately after an 80-metre section of the Morandi Bridge collapsed in Genoa and before the exact death toll was determined, the Italian government’s response was to squarely place the blame on Autostrade per l’Italia, the private toll-road operator that now manages more than 2,800 kilometres of motorways, or roughly 51 percent of the country’s total road network.

Taking to Facebook, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio accused the private operator of failing to fulfil its obligations under the concession agreement by not carrying out the necessary maintenance. Given a scant few hours had passed when Di Maio published his post, this would seem, at best, like a knee-jerk reaction. At worst, it’s the politicising of a tragic event.

At the time of writing, four weeks had passed since the bridge collapsed. While we are still a long way from finding out who was responsible for what one fund manager described as “everyone’s worst nightmare”, two early conclusions can already be drawn: firstly, the Morandi Bridge collapse is almost certainly a public-private failure; and secondly, it highlights the formidable challenges both parties face in maintaining ageing infrastructure.

The blame game
Since the government’s main accusation is that Autostrade failed in its duties as a concessionaire – at the time of publication, a procedure to revoke its concession was ongoing – our first port of call was to try to understand how it went about maintaining the bridge.

Autostrade claims it dedicated 926 days to bridge maintenance between 2015 and 2018 but pinpointing how much money was spent on it proves immediately difficult.

“Autostrade has been spending something like €200,000 per year on ordinary maintenance, a very poor amount,” a spokesman for the transport ministry tells us. The company has repeatedly declined to disclose the amount of capital spent maintaining the bridge and has refused to comment on the €200,000 figure and the ministry’s characterisation of it.

Instead, a spokeswoman for Autostrade tells us that €1 billion a year is spent on its entire roads network. “A large percentage of that has been dedicated to that area. [In terms of maintenance], you spend what you think is necessary to maintain that bridge. If it wasn’t enough, that will be decided in court,” she says.

In a statement on 11 September, the company claims it spent €5.14 billion from 2000 to 2017 on maintenance, “more than the commitments envisaged by the concession”. That overall spend appears to compare favourably with its peers. In a 21 August note issued by Standard & Poor’s, the ratings agency says that Autostrade’s parent company, Atlantia, has spent more than its Spanish and French toll road counterparts between 2013 and 2017.

That assertion, however, is based on overall capital expenditure as a percentage of sales and does not include a breakdown of capital spent on maintenance and repairs versus new or expansion projects.

Another key question that needs answering is whether the government – past and present – fulfilled its obligations as the owner and overseer of the asset.

A transport ministry spokesman claims “the government did essentially [carry out] formal controls on the concessionaire’s duties. That’s especially due to the nature of the contracts, often unbalanced and settled in favour of private operators”.

But the spokesman added the “Ministry of Transport did not have enough human and financial resources. The concessionaire, anyway, has a clear and strong responsibility to manage and leave in good condition the infrastructure [under concession] until the contract is terminated”.

Nevertheless, as one Italy-based project finance lawyer told us, “the concessionaire is not fully autonomous in the design/planning of maintenance or extraordinary maintenance”.

A good example of that is a €20 million project both parties agreed in February for the retrofitting of portions of the bridge. The decision was made following a study by the Polytechnic University of Milan and commissioned by Autostrade, which found that some of the bridge’s stays had a 20 percent reduction in their resistance capacity and needed repair. A ministerial decree greenlighting the project was not signed until 11 June.

Flawed design?
Questions about the stays inevitably bring us to the elephant in the room: was there a flaw in the Morandi Bridge’s original design?

After all, Autostrade has made it clear that it carried out multiple inspections and interventions on the bridge. The latter included structural changes in the 1980s and 1990s, aimed at addressing safety issues the original design engineer, Riccardo Morandi, had identified in a 1981 report.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a flaw,” Antonio Occhiuzzi, director of the Construction Technologies Institute of the Italian National Research Council and a professor of structural engineering at Naples’ University of Parthenope, tells Infrastructure Investor.

“The stays were – and are, for the surviving portion of the bridge – made of steel cables encased in a concrete matrix. However, time has revealed that the ageing of the steel cables, even when protected by concrete, was unavoidable and hidden by the concrete case itself, and that the structural safety of a cable-stayed bridge is heavily dependent on the stays’ integrity. If you have many stays, a failure can be temporarily allowed by an overload on the other stays. If there is only a couple of stays for each span of the bridge, there is not a ‘second chance’,” Occhiuzzi explains.

John Brown Miller, a managing member of infrastructure consultancy Ironside Strategies and former professor of construction management and civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was also reluctant to blame the original design. “It would be unfair to reach any conclusions about the propriety of the original design without a much deeper understanding of the circumstances presented to Morandi in the 1960s,” he comments.

As Occhiuzzi puts it: “A large part of the Italian road network and related infrastructures was built in the 20 years following the end of World War II, which destroyed almost all national roads. The pressure and the hurry in rebuilding a whole country needed a compromise about the quality of the constructed facilities and the available resources. So, it was decided to adopt primarily reinforced concrete and the structural standards were a compromise between cost-effectiveness and durability.”

He explains: “Nowadays, we are ‘discovering’ that constructions made of reinforced concrete according to the technologies and the standards of the 50s and 60s were such that the associated life span is about 50 years.”

Occhiuzzi’s comments, the collapse itself and claims by Autostrade that the necessary maintenance was carried out, seem to hint that the bridge was beyond repair and in need of replacement.

In a blog post Occhiuzzi published on the ITC CNR website on the day of the disaster, he lists several other bridges that have collapsed in Italy in the past five years. The common denominator was their age. His proposed solution is a type of “Marshall Plan” that would enable the country to rebuild and replace its ageing infrastructure that has reached or exceeded its useful life span. While that could be a solution, it is not one that can be immediately implemented.

Miller, on the other hand, suggests that “there may be a need for a secure contract mechanism for either government or the concessionaire, without penalty, to interrupt service in response to a safety concern”.

That could be one change the industry can expect to see in concession agreements, following the Morandi Bridge collapse. Others, according to one fund manager involved in the transport sector, could include: the public sector placing greater demands on private operators to meet required criteria regarding safety and quality of service; greater demand for reinvesting profits; and greater investment on the part of the public sector in ageing infrastructure.

“I personally believe that this should lead to further public-private co-operation as the public sector cannot cope with these massive investment needs due to financial constraints, but also because they will need the private sector’s technical and human resources,” the manager says.

While it’s clear that governments’ financial constraints – not just in Italy but in most parts of the world – will almost certainly lead to greater public-private co-operation, if there is one overarching lesson from the collapse of the Morandi bridge, it’s that any such co-operation must be imbued with much greater levels of transparency.

Case in point: when asked about what measures it had taken to ensure safe operation of the bridge, in response to a letter from the transport ministry alleging breach of contract, an Autostrade spokeswoman again refused to answer.

“The findings to the Ministry are private. It’s not public – it’s between the company and the MIT [Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport].”

That kind of response simply won’t do, not when 43 members of the public have lost their lives.