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Timeline 11 Sep 17

Romania Seeks World Bank Aid Over Stalled Highways

With numerous highway projects stalled by incompetence and corruption, the government is turning to the World Bank, hoping it can help it get back into gear. 

Ana Maria Touma
BIRN
Bucharest
Nadlac-Sebes Highway in Western Romania, one of the few operational in Romania. Photo: cnadnr.ro

Romanian Prime Minister Mihai Tudose asked the World Bank last week to help manage a new project for an old idea.

This is the planned highway linking the capital, Bucharest, to the city of Brasov, across the Carpathian Mountains.

The proposed highway has been discussed for years – and has been one of the most hotly debated projects for two decades.

Currently, the road from Bucharest to Brasov is one of the most congested in Romania, with only two lanes operating in mountain areas.

Despite scores of feasibility studies, construction of a proper highway has yet to start.

For a country of its size, Romania is very poorly served in terms of highways.

At the end of 2016, it had only 685 kilometres of them. Tiny Belgium, by contrast, has 1,700 km.

Dozens of projects have stopped, started and stopped again, often due to corruption allegations.

In spring 2016, the management of the Romanian National Company for Highways and National Roads fired 68 managers at the request of the shareholders over the slow execution of highway projects, overpayment of personnel and inefficiency.

Several former members of the company’s management have been investigated for corruption.

Of all 27 European Union states, Romania lost most EU funds from Brussels over the period 2007 to 2013 because it failed to start the planned construction of highways.

According to the EU Commissioner for Regional Development, Corina Cretu – herself a Romanian – who visited Bucharest on Thursday and Friday, Bucharest has missed out on almost 2 billion euros worth of EU funds because of its failed highway projects.

“It’s sad because Romania needs better road infrastructure just like one needs water,” the Commissioner told journalists.

The most advanced current project in Romania, which is set to link the southern Transylvanian city of Sibiu to the southern city of Pitesti, is still only in the feasibility study stage, she noted.

Romania’s National Company for Highways and National Roads in2016 vowed that the country would have over 1,000 kilometers of highways worth by 2026. But that promise is a long way from fulfillment.

The A3:

The largest road infrastructure project in Romania is sent to link the capital, Bucharest, with the border with Hungary.

Designed to be 585 km long, it will cross the Southern Carpathians and Transylvania all the way to Oradea in the west and the Bors border crossing.

In 2005, the project was split into two: one linking Bucharest to Brasov over the Southern Carpathians, and another linking Brasov and Bors, nicknamed the “Transylvania Highway”.

In 2009, the first 42 km of the A3, linking Turda in Transylvania to the region’s main city, Cluj, was opened.

Another 10 km in the same region became operational the following year. In 2012, 56 km of the southern project were opened.

But the rest of the project has stalled due to corruption allegations.

In 2004, the contract for theTransylvania highway, the northern part of the project, went to the US-based Bechtel group.

However, after numerous modifications and renegotiations, the deal with Bechtel was scrapped in 2013.

It turned out that the government had by then paid the company 1.4 billion euros over almost 10 years for only 52 km of useable highway. Another 64 were half-built.

Large portions of the construction site had by then remained unattended for over a year-and-a-half.

The remaining portion of the project was then split into several smaller projects and public tenders, mostly held in 2015-2016 with construction underway in 2017.

The southern part of the highway, running from Ploiești to Brașov, has meanwhile missed several deadlines.

Only the section between Bucharest and Ploiesti is open. Construction for the remaining 58 km has yet to begin.

Prime Minister Tudose has now asked the World Bank to help oversee the project, which has stalled for seven years, after two consortiums failed to raise 1.8 billion euros needed.

The ‘highway of shame’:

The Orastie-Sibiu highway in Southern Transylvania has been equally troubled – even earning the nickname the “highway of shame” in 2016, after the authorities had to inaugurate it twice.

After the state paid over 130 million euros to the Italian company Salini Impregilio for 22 km of highway, it soon had to close it for repairs.

The highway was closed again in mid-2017 because of structural problems at a viaduct that posed a danger to drivers. The road had to be demolished a year after its inauguration.

In the meantime, the National Anti-Corruption Directorate has started investigating the way the Italian company had used the contract funds.

The same company is currently being investigated in Italy for alleged use of poor quality construction materials to build a high-speed railway.

The Mountain Highway:

Meant to link the Transylvanian town of Targu Mures with several cities in eastern Romania over the Eastern Carpathians and the border with Moldova, this is currently in the design phase.

However, Romania’s anti-graft prosecutors in June this year started an investigation into this highway as well.

They have been probing into the way the government road administration agency conducted the tender for the feasibility study.

The investigation comes after Romania’s Court of Audit reported irregularities in the procedure and suspended the contract.

Sibiu-Pitesti highway:

This highway, which should cross the Southern Carpathians over the Olt River Valley, is also under a question mark.

The state-owned highway and road company in June announced a public tender to construct the Sibiu and Pitesti section but the government since broke off the contract with the company in charge of the feasibility study.

The contractor had missed the August 2017 deadline to submit the study and a new tender is yet to be launched. 

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