Could rebuilding Italy’s crumbling roads and bridges save the post-lockdown economy?

Now is the time for Italy to rebuild schools, roads, and bridges, and to invest in the green economy and internet connectivity, experts say.

Could rebuilding Italy's crumbling roads and bridges save the post-lockdown economy?
A local resident watches as the last section of the new Genoa bridge is lifted into place on April 28th. Photo: AFP

The Italian government admits it badly needs to renovate crumbling roads, bridges and railways, and doing so could also save lives. Yet the possible hurdles are many – from funding to political will, bureaucracy and a recent safety reports scandal.

The completion of the Genoa bridge has been hailed as a sign of renewal for Italy, where over 28,000 people have died in the coronavirus pandemic and millions risk losing their jobs due to an economically-crippling nationwide lockdown.

READ ALSO: New hope for Italy as Genoa bridge nears completion

Genoa's new flyover “is a symbol for the whole of Italy. An Italy that can rise again, that will roll up its sleeves, that will not allow itself to be beaten,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said at the unveiling ceremony.

As ships in the maritime city's port sounded their horns to mark the completion, Conte paid homage to the 43 people who plunged to their deaths when the former span, the Morandi flyover, collapsed in 2018.

Other such tragedies could be averted by funding roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and climate change adaptation, which would create jobs and fuel short- and long-term growth.

Construction workers watch as the last section of Genoa's bridge is lifted into place on April 28th. Photo: AFP

Almost 750 public works worth 62 billion euros ($68 billion) were on hold at the end of last year, from large bridges to small-town schools, according to Italy's construction lobby ANCE.

Kick-starting them would create 962,000 jobs, it said.

Such stimulus is sorely needed as the country slides towards its worst recession since World War II because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But sceptics wonder where the money will come from – with Italian GDP forecast to contract by between eight and 10 percent this year – and whether the political will exists in a fragile coalition government.

Disasters in the making

The Morandi – one of the world's longest concrete bridges when it opened in 1967 – was a symbol of rebirth for postwar Italy, which was modernising rapidly, throwing up thousands of concrete viaducts, tunnels and bridges.

But by 2018, Italy ranked 22nd out of 28 EU countries for the efficiency of its transport network.
While its ancient Roman cementstructures still stood, it discovered that modern versions had much shorter life-spans.

The Morandi collapsed followed a string of similar incidents and it finally set alarm bells ringing.
Most of Italy's 6,500 kilometres (4,000 miles) of motorway are managed by private companies, which must ensure their bridges are safe.

A post-disaster probe int the Genoa bridge disaster found evidence of poor maintenance by Autostrade per l'Italia, which is among Italy's biggest toll-road operators and owned by the
powerful Benetton family.

It also unearthed allegedly falsified safety reports by the motorway unit and its sister company for several other bridges, in what prosecutors suspected were attempts to cut costs.
Autostrade per l'Italia denies any wrongdoing and widespread calls for it to be stripped of its concession have as yet come to nothing.

It is not the only operator failing to keep its network safe.

Just last month, another bridge crumbled into a river between Liguria and Tuscany. It would have been heavily used at the time, had it not been for the virus lockdown. This one was managed by state-owned ANAS.


There are 20 more bridges at risk of collapse across the country, and 200 road tunnels that do not meet European safety standards, according to investigative reports seen and cited by the Repubblica daily in January.

“I am begging you on my knees, give the country a great plan – like the Marshall Plan – to restart it,” Pietro Salini, CEO of Italy's biggest building company Salini Impregilo, told Conte last week.

Salini Impregilo, which rebuilt the Genoa bridge with shipbuilder Fincantieri, wants to create a construction hub called “Project Italy”, by combining its assets with those of struggling building

It says it would help restart numerous projects that are currently blocked across the country. But its biggest challenge may be generating sufficient liquidity.

Since the shutdown, Conte has unveiled stimulus packages worth 750 billion euros ($830 billion). He has also, however, had to apologise several times for long delays in payments.

Last week, he lifted the lockdown early for construction projects considered to have strategic importance, from schools, prisons and council housing, to disaster risk reduction for extreme weather events.

Environmentalist lobby Legambiente has urged the government to make the climate crisis its infrastructure priority, after nearly 160 extreme events in 2019 – flash floods, whirlwinds and landslides – killed 42 people.

Work on part of Venice's still-unfinished flood barrier in progress in 2013. Photo: Marco Sabadin/AFP

A historic high tide that washed through Venice in November, causing millions of euros of damage to Saint Mark's Basilica alone, was blamed both on climate change and huge delays to a vast flood barrier project.

The country's schools are also in an alarming state.

Fifty-five percent of school buildings in Italy were built before the 1974 anti-seismic regulations were brought in, according to ANCE.

Some 43 percent of them are in areas classified as high-risk for earthquakes. Over 70 percent do not have fire safety certificates. Stories regularly hit the news about pupils evacuated over crumbling classroom ceilings.

Many have pointed out that the national closure of schools until September because of the coronavirus is the perfect opportunity for the renovation of ageing structures.

But can Italy afford it?

The government has said it will widen the budget deficit by 55 billion euros, a “shock cure” which would see public debt in the eurozone's third largest economy jump to 155.7 percent of GDP, from the already mammoth 134.8 percent in 2019.

It pledged to speed up new public works that are in an advanced planning stage and maintain existing ones.

And it also promised to “urgently and drastically simplify administrative procedures” in critical sectors, including construction, the green economy and Internet connectivity.

Italy is famed for its red tape and projects often drag on for years, plagued by bureaucracy.

The country has at least 50 large infrastructure projects that are blocked but have been signed off on, with the money ready to spend, from a high-speed train in Sicily to the widening of a motorway in Tuscany, ANCE says.

Financial experts caution however that some of those funds may be withdrawn and channelled to projects considered more essential due to the crisis, or with immediate prospects of a payoff.

The National Council of Engineers (CNI) is one of many bodies to have sent the government proposals on how best to use infrastructure to reboot the country and shape it along different lines.
“Cities have proved fragile spaces in sanitary terms,” the council's head Armando Zambrano told AFP.

He suggested investment could be made to encourage a return to the countryside, revitalising hundreds of abandoned little towns across Italy, and improving internet connections to encourage working from home.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Cost of living: How does Italy compare to the rest of the world in 2022?

Italy has recorded lower costs of living than the UK and US so far for 2022 after outstripping both last year. Here's a closer look at how everyday outgoings compare.

How Italy stacks up for cost of living compared to the rest of the world.
How Italy stacks up for cost of living compared to the rest of the world. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

It’s a common belief that the cost of living in Italy is generally cheap and cheerful, and this is often thought to explain the nation’s comparatively low wages.

However, Italy in fact outpaced both the UK and the US for living expenses last year, ranking as the 26th most expensive country in the world.

Good news for those living in or travelling to Italy this year, though – the latest figures for 2022 show that Italy has now slid down the scale, behind the UK and US, coming 32nd in the global ranking, according to Numbeo’s Cost of Living Index for 2022.

It is classified as being cheaper than France (19th), the UK (26th), the US (27th), and the famously expensive Switzerland – which was ranked second most expensive in the world for the second year running. And once again, Bermuda placed first.

The survey was compiled using the notoriously expensive city of New York City as a benchmark. New York was given an index score of 100. So a country with a score higher than 100 is more expensive than New York, while below signals that it is cheaper.

READ ALSO: The parts of Italy where house prices keep rising despite the pandemic

Italy scored 66.47 overall. It has got cheaper for groceries, dropping four places in the global scale and is now around 12 percentage points cheaper than the US, but is still more expensive than the UK.

While people in Italy have seen energy prices surge in January, with a knock-on effect on food prices and other costs, the same has also happened in many other countries.

Italy ranks 34th for a food shop compared to 36th place for the Brits. But it is cheaper than the US (19th), Canada (20th) and Australia (9th).

Compared to its European neighbours, you’ll pay more at the till for your weekly groceries in France (16th), Denmark (22nd) and Austria (26th). On the other hand, Italy is more expensive than Germany (41st) and Spain (54th) for supplies to stock your fridge.

In a separate recent survey specifically focussed on this aspect of living costs, Italy was in fact much higher up the scale for the cost and affordability of a grocery shop.

The findings from Net Credit are based on not just supermarket prices, but they also consider income. Researchers calculated the affordability of a basket of goods in each country as a percentage of the average daily wage.

Italy’s groceries can be expensive when you factor in the average salary. Photo by Axel Heimken / AFP

The shopping basket they surveyed focused on ten staples including breakfast cereal, eggs, cheese, milk and bread.

Factoring this in, Italy ranked 15th most expensive worldwide for the cost of groceries, calculated as being 33 percent of a daily salary.

Common expenditure prices in Italy

  • Milk – €1,15
  • Loaf of fresh white bread – €1,56
  • Local cheese (1kg) – €12,24
  • Beef (1kg) – €14,68
  • Bottle of wine (mid-range) – €5,00
  • Domestic Beer (0.5 litre draught) – €4,50
  • Meal per person at low-cost restaurant – €15,00
  • Three-course meal for 2, mid-range restaurant – €55,00
  • Monthly pass on public transport – €35,00
  • Petrol (per litre) – €1,62
  • Basic utilities (Electricity, gas, water, rubbish) for 85m2 Apartment – €162,79
  • Apartment rent (1 bedroom) in city centre – €588,95
  • Apartment rent (1 bedroom) outside of centre – €449,53
  • Price per square metre to buy an apartment in city centre – €3,092.74

Numbeo’s Cost of Living index, weighs up average estimates for expenses for a four-person family, ranging from clothing, groceries and dining out to transportation, recreational activities and utilities.

And its rent index is based on the costs of renting one- and three-bedroom apartments in and outside of city centres.

For this category, Italy ranked 44th out of 139 entries in total worldwide, compared to 37th last year. It again comes behind Spain, the UK, the US and Canada.

READ ALSO: The ten positives you’ll notice after moving to Italy from the US

Italy was found to be eleven points cheaper than the UK on average compared to eight points last year, and over 20 points cheaper than the US when it comes to rental accommodation.

Photo: Jürgen Scheeff on Unsplash

Restaurant bills – which were found to be higher on average in Italy than France, Germany, the US and the UK last year – have become relatively cheaper in 2022. Italy recorded around six percentage points lower than the UK for dining out, whereas it’s now about the same compared to the US.

It is still much more expensive than Spain, coming in at around 17 points more costly for eating out.

According to Numbeo’s country profile, the average Italian monthly salary after tax is €1,443.39 compared to $3,596.78 (€3,176.10) in the United States and £2,011.40 (€2,400) in the UK.

While salaries are lower in Italy and many living costs don’t differ greatly between Italy, the UK and the US, you can at least bank on a cheaper cappuccino in Italy.

On average, it will set you back €1.40 in Italy, compared to €3.87 in the US and €3.34 in the UK.

These three countries don’t differ that much for a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant, costing between €53 and €59.

Certain produce is more expensive in Italy such as local cheese and meat, but it costs less to use public transport overall.

Monthly utility bills were recorded as being higher in Italy than the US, but not the UK.

READ ALSO: Rising energy prices: How to save money on your bills in Italy

Meanwhile, average private monthly childcare costs in Italy are cheaper compared to the UK and US, based on one child attending full-time.

In its Cost of Living City index for 2022, Milan has ranked the highest for Italian cities coming in at 117th place out of 578 cities worldwide. It’s followed by Parma (148th) and Genoa (149th). Rome came 177th.

Parma recently came first in the country in a survey on the best and worst places to live in Italy. It took the title for its healthcare, work and business opportunities, level of environmental protection, life satisfaction levels and how it managed the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ ALSO: The very best Italian towns to move to – according to people who live in them

Previous European studies have shown the cost of groceries, eating out, internet and communications to be relatively high in Italy.

Within Italy itself, there can be huge regional differences. Broadly speaking, the north of Italy tends to be more expensive than the south, and cities pricier than rural areas.

Milan is notorious for high rents, as are tourist hotspots including central Florence and Venice – and generally speaking people living in these areas will face higher costs for most goods and services.

But average recorded prices are brought down by the fact that it is relatively cheap to rent in small towns and villages, while the cost of services can also be markedly lower outside the major Italian cities.