Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
If your destination in Poland happens to be somewhere between the small towns of Nowy Tomysl and Strykow, enjoy the modern highway. But if you plan to drive somewhere else - for example to Poland's capital, Warsaw, prepare for a nightmare of columns of international transport trucks jostling with frustrated passenger cars all fighting for space on narrow two-lane roads wending their way through towns and villages.
The inability to build a modern road infrastructure has been the signal failure of every Polish government since the end of communism in 1989. The new government of the liberal Civic Platform party, which won the October 21 parliamentary elections, knows that the lack of a decent highway system is a key frustration for voters and if there is no visible progress in the next few years, the government will pay a hefty political price.
"We are very much aware of the social expectations," Cezary Grabarczyk, the new infrastructure minister and the man who will be in the firing line if the road situation does not dramatically improve, told bne. "Since 1989, there haven't been many tangible examples of progress."
More than Grabarczyk's ministerial hide is in question. Poland, together with Ukraine, is hosting the 2012 European football championships, and as part of its promise to the governing body UEFA, Poland has promised to build 1,100 kilometres of new highways and more than 2,000 km of divided expressways. Currently, Poland has only 670 km of highways and 340 km of expressways.
Over the last year, only 8 km on new highways were completed, and the prediction is that next year slightly more than 100 km will be handed over for drivers to use. At that pace there is almost no chance of Poland reaching its ambitious construction deadlines, says Adrian Furgalski, a transportation analyst with the TOR consultancy. "Realistically, we are able to complete about 100-150 km of highway and about 250 km of expressways a year," he says. "The 2012 predictions are now impossible."
One of the biggest problems in the past was a lack of money. Previous governments had ambitious plans, but lacked the cash to build, while legal complications made it difficult for private contractors to undertake the task. However, the money question has been eased somewhat following Poland's 2004 entry into the EU. Poland will receive about €67bn during the 2007-2013 budget cycle, about a third of which will be spent on infrastructure.
The remaining stumbling blocks concern Poland's formidable red tape, something Grabarczyk has promised to swiftly tackle. "It now takes about seven years from planning to a completed project. Optimists say that can be cut in half," he says.
He plans to decentralise the planning process, to allow local governments a much greater say in coming with their own projects and setting their own tenders. He also wants to limit environmental oversight to only the final project proposal; cutting out time-consuming consultations at every level of planning that now absorbs enormous amounts of time. "In ways our legal system is more built up and complicated than even EU law demands," says Grabarczyk. "We are creating unneeded difficulties for ourselves."
He also wants to make it more difficult for losing contractors to appeal unsuccessful bids. Currently such appeals, often on arcane and very technical grounds, derail many projects, adding years to construction time. A recent law has finally speeded up expropriation procedures. Until recently, the government had to negotiate with landowners, who were able to refuse government buyout offers, forcing planners to amend routes, or else delay construction. In one case in Warsaw, the owner of a lottery sales booth held up the extension of the capital's metro system for months before finally being persuaded to move his booth elsewhere. Now bulldozers can begin their work, even while sales negotiations continue.
If all those changes happen, Grabarczyk's prediction that "Poland could become one of the largest construction sites in Europe" might actually come to pass, and frustrated drivers may one day be able to drive to Warsaw by highway.
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