Working on the ground. An audit of the EU’s road building programme.

A report on EU road building throws up some shaming headlines, but a deeper read reveals some surprising findings, particularly about road building in Germany. 

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Egnatia Odos in Greece, Igoumenitsa

One of the Greek roads in the study: Egnatia Odos, Igoumenitsa-Thessaloniki.

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Top Gear’s recent ‘Budget Supercar’ feature was filmed in and around the deserted new towns and motorways of southern Spain. High speed runs were staged on the runway of an abandoned airport.

As @JeremyClarkson tweeted afterwards, ‘If you watched Top Gear tonight ask yourself a question. Who paid for all those things they didn’t need?’

It’s become the received wisdom, that the EU fritters away western European taxpayers’ money on costly, white elephant infrastructure projects in the south and east. But is it true?

Well a report on road building, coincidentally released the day after that Top Gear programme, says: yes.

It found that projects were over-specified, late, projections were wrong, budgets exceeded, the locals were basically given the cash and left to get on with it, and there weren’t any mechanisms in place to measure the benefits of the roads when they were finished. There were also question marks over the tendering processes.

Most damning of all, it emerged that it was cheaper to build roads in Germany than either Spain, Greece or Poland.

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Building roads in Spain.

Road building in Spain.

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The European Court of Auditors selected 24 road projects completed between 2000 and 2013, focusing on the four countries that between them took 62% of the €65bn roads’ budget. In descending order they were Poland, Spain, Greece and Germany.

Ten of the projects were motorways, ten were expressways and there were four single lane main roads. In total they cost €3bn to which the EU made an average contribution of 44%.

According to the Auditors’ findings, six of those motorways should have been expressways (which are half as expensive to build) based on traffic levels since the roads opened.

Only nineteen of the projects had both estimated and actual traffic figures available. Fourteen of them had been over-estimated. Only five were within 20% of predictions.

Interestingly though it was the Germans who got it wrong most often. The best they managed was 79% utilisation; the worst was 47%.

In fact, strip out the six German projects and the problem becomes not empty roads but too-full ones. Five of the rest have traffic over a fifth greater than originally envisaged.

The Germans also took the prize for the most expensive overrun. The S177 at Radeburg came in at very nearly twice the contract price. Meanwhile, the Poles delivered five roads on budget and were the only country to build one under-budget.

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Poland. Expensive but built on time and to budget.

Poland. Expensive, but built to time and on budget.

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The poor old Germans suffered the longest delays too – on average 59.5% longer than planned – and only managed to bring one road in on time (as did the Greeks). The Spanish on the other hand brought two roads into service ahead of schedule.

However, there is no getting away from the fact that every 1,000m2 of road in Germany cost €87,000 to build compared to €122,562 in Greece, €160,694 in Spain and €163,370 in Poland. This is nothing to do with geography, bridges and tunnels, or the costs of land. This is just for laying tarmac.

Disappointingly, the Auditors failed to come up with a clear cut reason for the massive disparity in costs. The word corruption didn’t get a single mention. It was left to the European Commission in its response to hint vaguely about inflation in the price of materials, an overheated construction market and ‘unjustified additional works’ in Poland, plus one or two clauses in the local tendering arrangements in Spain that ‘may have been’ advantageous for the contractors.

It also emerged that the EU has no minimum cost/benefit ratio, and that it was up to the member states/local authorities to decide what kind of roads they wanted and to manage the construction.

Despite the damning headlines, overall the Commission must have been pretty pleased with this report. Everyone agrees that the new roads cut journey times and improved safety. The report didn’t find that any of the new roads had crazy routes via out-of-the-way places inhabited only by local politicians. The Commission also made the point that traffic levels should be evaluated over more than just the first few years.

Ultimately, the Auditors came to the inescapable conclusion that the EU should exert much more control over infrastructure projects in the future. You cannot help but feel that plays right into the Commission’s hands.

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See the report here. It’s a recommended read, clearly written, with hardly any jargon, and a great insight into how the EU works on the ground, literally.

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