'Thousands of Italian bridges will be in crisis in the next 20 years'

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Alex Macbeth - [email protected]
'Thousands of Italian bridges will be in crisis in the next 20 years'
The Morandi Bridge in Genoa, part of which collapsed on August 14th. Photo: Handout/ITALIAN POLICE/AFP.

The next 20 years could be critical for Italian bridges built out of concrete in the post-war period, experts tell The Local.


The collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa raises questions about the prospects of Italy's more than one million bridges built out of concrete. 

Italian newspapers have highlighted that 300 major bridges could be at risk of collapse. But an expert who inspects bridges and public infrastructure across the country says those numbers are far too conservative. 

"There are approximately more than one million bridges longer than three metres in Italy. If even only one per cent, a conservative estimate, are in bad condition, we can estimate that at least a thousand bridges will be in absolute crisis in the next five to twenty years," Settimo Martinello, managing director of 4Emme, a Bolzano-based company that inspects bridges across the Italian peninsula, told The Local in a telephone interview. 

Martinello says the bridges in real danger are not the marquee projects on highways – there were 1,622 bridges and viaducts longer than 100 metres in 2016, according to Italy's Ministry for Infrastructures and Transport – but more remote crossings and tunnels in some of Italy's poorer and less-developed regions.

READ ALSO: Atlantia, Italy's motorway operator with global ambitions under scrutiny

The engineer Riccardo Morandi's bridge in Agrigento, now closed, or the Allaro Bridge in Reggio Calabria are often cited as at risk. And they are, but this only obscures the bigger picture of less visible, yet degraded, bridges that are equally at risk in smaller provinces. 

"In some cases, a bridge will have been built 30 to 40 years ago and will never have been inspected or undergone any maintenance," says Martinello. "To maintain them you need technical knowhow."

While Italian motorway operators, in theory, have the funds and technicians to ensure regular inspections and repairs, bridges that come under the jurisdiction of smaller regions are overlooked: smaller provinces simply don't have the funds or technicians to implement regular inspections and maintenance.

"A surgeon doesn't operate without having studied medicine," Martinello told The Local. Yet "there are no bridges that don't require maintenance," he adds.

Negligence only intensifies the problem. "If you ignore them, the cost will only rise to repair them," says the expert. 

'The eternal material'

In the 1950s and 1960s, Italy underwent a construction boom like few other countries in Europe. As the nation's industry grew, so did the country's infrastructure network. Concrete became the elixir of construction companies. 

"In the 50s and 60s of the last century it was thought that concrete was an eternal material that eliminated, or in any case greatly reduced, maintenance costs. However, experience and research in the decades since have denied this hypothesis as it has been shown that even concrete undergoes degradation," Giovanni Plizzari, a professor of engineering at the Department of Civil, Environmental, Architectural Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Brescia, told The Local by email. 
These days reinforced concrete bridges are far more durable because a bridge's core armour can be made of stainless steel, be zinc-coated or non-metallic. "These techniques, however, were not known or readily available in the 50s and 60s," clarifies Plizzari. Cable-stayed bridges today can also withstand the collapse of the bridge if one of the stays gives way.
Concrete in itself, therefore, is not necessarily the problem. An extravagant construction boom such as Italy's in the post-war period required fast and cheap projects, which meant that in many cases construction companies used poor-quality materials and failed to observe engineering requirements. 
For example, the concrete cover that supports the core steel structure buried in many bridges should be 3 to 5 centimetres thick to protect it from humidity. 4Emme's Martinello says that in some bridges however the cover is only between 0 and 2 centimetres thick, which in turn invites a chemical reaction due to contact with air.
When the corrosion cuts through the concrete and begins to attack a bridge's core steel structure, you are essentially left "with a body without bones," adds the Italian inspection expert. Such a bridge can have a healthy lifespan of up to 70 years without experiencing any problems, but once the oxidization begins, a bridge can reach a critical condition in less than two decades. 
Ticking bomb
Anybody who has recently driven on an Italian road will have witnessed the process Martinello describes. If a bridge has discoloured black lines and bits of metal bars poking out of it, then the likelihood is that rot has set in and the clock is ticking. 
"Thousands of bridges will be in crisis in the next 20 years," Martinello told The Local. The economic disparity between north and south in Italy inevitably means that southern regions are less able to manage any problems. 
How did this happen? Because cheap can become dangerous. "The introduction of pre-stressed reinforced concrete was initially seen as a very effective solution to reduce the considerable costs required by the maintenance of steel bridges," Professor Plizzari told The Local. 
Another issue is that the weight that bridges have to withstand today is different to what was originally estimated when many bridges were built more than half a century ago. Today's globalized world has far more heavy lorries on the move than fifty years ago. 
4Emme is part of a team working on a software project, weBridge, that allows local authorities to enter data about bridges under their jurisdiction and drivers to assess whether bridges on their intended route can withstand the load they are carrying. But as Martinello points out, the project born in February 2018 will only work if local authorities input the data. 
Buy cheap, buy twice
The essential problem that has led to the perilous situation across Italy's, and much of Europe's, infrastructure network is that cheap isn't always good.
Governments, when issuing public tenders, favoured, and still do, bids that emphasize the most economically efficient proposal and the fastest turnaround. This meant good quality materials and durability were often overlooked. 
This 'cut-price' boom invited seedy bids, often from criminal organisations, who had the disposable funds to win the bids. 
"Public contracts managed by real criminal networks... having within them even representatives of the contracting authority are forever more," states a study by Raffaele Cantone, the head of the Italian National Anti-Corruption Authority (ANAC), on the entrenched role of the mafia and the 'Ndrangheta in public construction works.
The dramatic collapse of the Morandi Bridge has seen arguments about the role of criminal organisations in public infrastructure resurface.The Calabrian crime organisation the 'Ndrangheta is powerful in the region of Liguria, where the Morandi Bridge collapsed on the A10 highway on August 14th. 
Martinello estimates than on average only 50 per cent of sanctioned materials actually go into major construction projects. 
The problem persists. "In recent years the criterion of 'biggest discount' for the choice of winner in public tenders for infrastructure has been in frequent use," Plizzari told The Local. "This system could work in the presence of rigorous technical provisions and controls but could lead to a significant reduction in the quality of the work if the winner then has the freedom to modify some technical choices that become vital for a company that has offered a significantly lower than normal profit margin," he adds. 
In brief, if you want it done fast and for peanuts you're likely to pay for it later. But who should pay for what?
"As we are now aware that no bridge lasts forever and that the problems are now well known from a technical point of view, the real issue to be discussed – not only in Italy – is a serious program of maintenance and inspections of existing bridges," says Plizzari. 
4Emme's Martinello says no comprehensive census of Italian bridges has ever been conducted. Guidelines for maintenance have been redrafted several times, although "it is one thing to write guidelines, another to enact them," says the head of the inspection firm, which works with several Italian provinces and even Italy's government-owned motorway construction administrator ANAS. 
Is the tragedy of the Morandi Bridge collapse, in which 43 people died, likely to lead to a census?
Plizzari argues that if the perils of the post-war construction boom are to be overcome, a national census born of political will is needed. 
"In the coming years, we will see (or perhaps we are already seeing), the results of the construction criteria I described before when the reduced quality of the works will begin to manifest itself due to the degradation inevitably caused by the environment," he says. 
The Italian government has announced that it is reviewing the 25 motorway maintenance concessions across the country with a view to nationalising its infrastructure
The man who does the inspections isn't hopeful that a step forward will be made. "I'm convinced the government will not do anything," Martinello told The Local.
"There will just be more road signs with warnings." 



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