Putting Polish on the roads

By bne IntelliNews November 24, 2010

Jan Cienski in Wroclaw -

Wroclaw has become one of Poland's primary investment destinations thanks in part to Adolf Hitler, who built the highway connecting the city before the war, when Wroclaw was called Breslau and was part of Germany. But now, rather than mustachioed dictators, Wroclaw and other Polish cities are more reliant on grey Brussels bureaucrats, who are responsible for pumping €10bn in EU structural funds into Poland that will be used for road construction.

The results can be seen all around Poland. Wroclaw is now surrounded by an enormous construction site as bulldozers and other heavy equipment move tonnes of dirt to build a ring road around the city that will finally free its cobble-stoned streets from the thousands of lorries that used to push through downtown on their way to the A4 highway connecting Poland to Germany. "It is going to make an enormous difference to the city," says Rafal Dutkiewicz, the popular mayor of Wroclaw.

In a recent ceremony summing his three years in power, Donald Tusk, the prime minister, spent much of his time boasting about his government's infrastructure programme, which he said had dramatically boosted Poland's development. Standing in front of dozens of photographs showing construction projects from around the country, Tusk said: "The symbol of this boost are Polish roads, which for decades were a symbol of what successive governments were unable to accomplish."

All boasting aside, Tusk's judgement of his predecessors' failures is fairly accurate. In the two decades since the end of communism, governments had failed to improve Poland's terrible roads. Initially, the country was bankrupt after the high borrowing and economic collapse of the final years of communism. But as the country began to recover, governments were seduced by the idea of getting private companies to build highways in return for collecting the tolls once the roads were completed. The idea seemed to be both a seductive something-for-nothing deal, as well as conforming to the liberal stereotypes of the early 1990s. But the state's failure to extend guarantees to builders meant that the concept failed. Later, the country was both short of cash, and bedevilled by an arcane bureaucracy that made construction very difficult.

Going for goal

Then about six years ago, things changed. The money issue was dealt with by Poland's entry into the EU in 2004, which turned on spigots of EU cash, and the regulations have in large part been fixed by Cezary Grabarczyk, a lawyer who heads the infrastructure ministry, and who spent much of his early time in office slashing through the thickets of regulations impeding building.

The 2012 European football championships, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, have provided a convenient target date for completing the first round of highway construction. The government vowed that by the time of the championships in June 2012, there would be 900 kilometres of new highways - for a total network of 1,600 km - and 2,100 km of new slightly lower quality four-lane express roads - for a total network of 2,500 km.

The idea was to build a main north-south highway running from Gdansk, on the Baltic Sea, to the Czech border, and two east-west highways, one along the southern border, passing by Wroclaw and Krakow, and one through the centre of the country, connecting Warsaw with Berlin. "I guarantee you that you will be able to drive by a modern highway from Berlin to Warsaw by 2012," Grabarczyk insists during an interview with bne.

But the reality looks as though it will not be as glowing as the predictions made a couple of years ago.

Poland currently has only 893 km of highways, and there are 753 km under construction. There are also about 500 km of express roads, with 510 km under construction. Now there is almost no chance of the ambitious promises being fulfilled. Grabarczyk admits that the A1 north-south highway will have a big gap in the middle, other highways will be driveable but not properly completed, and the express roads network will be a pale shadow of what had been promised.

One reason for the delays is that Poland simply does not have the bureaucratic and construction capacity to build as much and as fast as the government had promised. Another is that the economic crisis has made it difficult to pay out the needed funds. In 2008, the government had planned to spend PLN21bn (€5.4bn), but actually managed to spend only two-thirds of that; last year, it was to spend PLN32bn, but spent only PLN18bn. Similar problems are likely this year. And for next year, the cash-strapped government, which is battling a high budget deficit and a rising public debt, promises to be even stingier.

Still, even if the reality is a little more down-to-earth than the dreams of a couple of years ago, the improvement in roads promises to be significant.

Poland's terrible roads have wreaked both an economic toll - scaring away investors - and a human one. Poland has the highest number of road deaths of all 27 EU countries - 4,572 people were killed on the roads in 2009, a death rate of 120 for every million citizens, while the EU average is 69 deaths per million. "The improvement is going to be significant. No one in Polish history has ever completed so many roads so quickly," says Magdalena Jaworska, the deputy head of the Polish road-building agency, the General Directorate for National Roads and Highways.

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