road traffic congestion

View from Brussels: Highways from hell

Image credit: European Union

Europe’s motorway network is supposed to grow and link up the continent’s east and west. But progress is slow and the coronavirus outbreak is only making some of the downsides of road transport even more pronounced.

The overarching theme of the European Union can be boiled down to one simple mantra: it is supposed to bring people closer together, whether that be economically, politically or literally.

Transport policy is a key tool in that quest. Improved rail links, a competitive aviation industry and, crucially, a well-linked road network are all important cogs in the bloc’s internal market, helping to move goods and people.

By 2030, the EU wants 50,000 kilometres of motorways completed. To achieve that feat, 2,000km of new roads were planned over the last six years. But a new report by the bloc’s auditors found that just 400km of tarmac was laid.

Network planning is grouped under the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), which also includes rail, inland waterways and airports. According to the number-crunching efforts of the auditors, nearly €80bn in EU money has gone towards road projects since 2007.

But the lead author on the European Court of Auditors review, Ladislav Balko, warned that “the EU core road network is making progress, but is not yet fully functional”. His report pointed to shortcomings in monitoring and a downward curve in national maintenance budgets.

The TEN-T network, which is guided by the EU’s administrative branch, the Commission, prioritises projects that are more likely to have a pan-European benefit and bring isolated or badly served parts of the continent closer together.

By 2050, the goal is to have every one of the member countries fully integrated.

National governments, however, have not been investing in the TEN-T corridors as much as they could have, the auditors' report revealed. Just a third of available funding was set aside for them since 2014.

A split between Western and Eastern Europe is also becoming apparent, as country-by-country data shows that the core network is complete in Spain but in Bulgaria and Poland it is just 46 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively.

Given the sheer volume of goods shifted by roads from east to west, it is shaping up to be a significant problem.

The TEN-T rules also state that investments in new infrastructure have to be matched when it comes to the upkeep of sometimes decades-old roadways and bridges. According to the report, the Commission does not have the tools needed to keep tabs on national budgets.

The OECD estimates that those investments halved between 2007 and 2017.

In 2018, the Italian government came close to folding in the wake of the deadly Morandi Bridge collapse in Genoa, which claimed the lives of 43 people. Other bridges and tunnels across Italy are also reportedly not up to code.

New roads and maintaining old ones are not the only problems. The quality of associated infrastructure like rest stops and refuelling stations is also a cause for concern, according to the report.

Shockingly, just 57 parking areas in just nine countries across the whole network are considered “safe and secure” according to criteria that take into account facilities like security, showers, food and power supply.

That is a massive issue for cross-border commercial drivers, who need safe parking. Virus lockdown measures are bringing that lack of facilities into the spotlight, as increased hygiene measures have in some cases shut down what little infrastructure was available.

Umberto de Pretto, head of the International Road Transport Union (IRU), says that many truckers are having to sleep in their cabs in unsafe areas, without access to showers, in order to keep deliveries flowing during the outbreak.

The sector is already struggling to attract new talent amid a growing shortage of drivers, which could escalate to 40 per cent if left unchecked, industry groups have warned.

There is little the EU can do about any of that - aside from issuing advice - because the rules are simply too vague. There is no standard for what constitutes a safe parking area and countries are free to regulate them as they see fit.

It is a similar case for alternative fuels like electricity, LNG and hydrogen. The TEN-T rules say that the infrastructure has to be made available but sets no targets. Governments can prioritise with impunity, effectively curtailing the roll-out of a newer generation of vehicles because cross-border companies have no guarantees that their routes will be viable.

No haulage firm is going to invest a substantial sum of money in cleaner lorries if there is a chance its business could be hurt.

Coronavirus still dominates the workload of the institutions but the reported plight of truckers might push the rule-makers to rethink the transport network’s nitty-gritty details when the time is right.

The Commission in particular is still trumpeting its Green Deal as the right policy to follow through the recovery period but if a patchwork of options exists for something as relatively simple as refuelling, its efforts could be doomed.

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