Italy sees signs of hope in new Genoa bridge

A general view shows the Genoa bridge as engineers perform static testing operations ahead of its inauguration in Genoa, Italy

Two years after part of Genoa’s Morandi motorway bridge collapsed, killing 43 people, a new structure opens in its place on Monday, an achievement in stark contrast to stalled infrastructure projects elsewhere in Italy.

The new kilometre-long bridge, designed by star architect Renzo Piano, replaces the old span that broke apart in the city on Aug. 14, 2018 in one of Italy’s worst civil disasters in decades.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who will attend the inauguration of the new Genova-San Giorgio viaduct on Monday before it is opened to road traffic later this week, said it would be a “symbol of a new Italy rising up again”.

In an interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Piano said he had conceived the bridge and its elliptical 40-metre high pillars as a ship to catch the Mediterranean light and fit the character of the port city.

The celebratory tone of the opening comes after a long and still-unfinished battle over the accident itself, which laid bare years of mismanagement and poor maintenance under Autostrade per l’Italia, the private concession holder controlled by the powerful Benetton family that ran the bridge.

Several officials from Autostrade, a unit of infrastructure group Atlantia, and the transport ministry have been placed under investigation by prosecutors and, after months of wrangling, Atlantia is set to lose control of its lucrative subsidiary.

For the mayor of Genoa and state-appointed commissioner for bridge reconstruction, Marco Bucci, the case is both an example of decades-long failures in Italy’s transport infrastructure and a demonstration of what the country can accomplish.

“There’s a feeling of both regret for what happened and pride in the work that’s been done,” he told us. “We’ve worked and shown Italian excellence.”

For years, Italy’s economy has suffocated under a mix of poor governance made worse by corruption and a thicket of vested interests and bureaucracy that have stifled innovation and fostered the kind of neglect that led to the bridge disaster.

Genoa itself, surrounded by hills that constrain road transport, has seen a motorway bypass project held up for decades.

With the coronavirus crisis still unfolding and billions of euros set to come to Italy from Europe’s newly agreed recovery fund, addressing such failures has gained a new urgency. As well as the shocking human toll, the collapse of the Morandi bridge dealt a severe economic blow to Genoa, costing the city about 6 million euros ($7 million) a day in lost revenues and additional costs, Bucci said, with freight traffic interrupted for months.

Under pressure to address the neglect which caused the disaster, the government pushed through an emergency decree to sweep aside red tape and work continued uninterrupted despite the COVID epidemic.From demolishing the remainder of the old structure in February 2019 to opening the new bridge 18 months later, the speed of the project has been breakneck in a country with crumbling roads and tunnels and development plans gathering dust.

While the circumstances behind the bridge collapse were unique, a lot rides on repeating that momentum elsewhere.

Trust and clear project goals – two things that have often been lacking in big infrastructure projects – were vital, said Roberto Carpaneto, head of RINA Consulting, which worked with the construction consortium led by Italian infrastructure groups Webuild and Fincantieri.

“Being able to say what was going to happen, when and why allowed us to build this relation of trust,” he said.

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