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Italy threatens action over bridge disaster, investors shun operator


ITALY'S biggest toll-road operator came under heavy stock-market attack on Thursday and the government said it could impose a heavy fine or revoke its concession over a bridge collapse that killed at least 38 people.

An 80-metre-long section of the bridge, part of a motorway linking the port city of Genoa with southern France, gave way on Tuesday in busy lunchtime traffic, sending dozens of vehicles into free-fall.

Autostrade per l'Italia, part of Milan-listed international toll-road group Atlantia and owned by the Italy's Benetton family, operated the motorway. It says it made regular, thorough safety checks on the 1.2 km-long viaduct, which was completed in 1967 and overhauled two years ago.

At the disaster scene, cranes moved away chunks of rubble as rescue teams searched for survivors. Genoa's chief prosecutor, Francesco Cozzi, said 10-20 people were still missing.

The government has rounded on Autostrade, saying it could revoke its concession as it had failed to ensure the viaduct's safety, though investigators have yet to identify the exact cause of the collapse.

"The options we're looking at are the full revocation, the revocation of just the A10 section or a penalty, but a 150 million euro (S$234.55 million) penalty is too low," deputy transport minister Edoardo Rixi told Reuters.

Under the terms of the concession Autostrade can be fined up to 150 million euros.

Atlantia shares fell by as much as 25 per cent at one point after being indicated down in pre-open trade by as much as 50 per cent. Shares were later down around 22 per cent.

Shares in other toll-road firms such as SIAS and ASTM also fell, after Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said the state would have to take over the country's motorways if concession-holders could not do the job properly.

"It's not possible that someone pays a toll to die," Mr Di Maio said. "Those who were supposed to do the maintenance work did not do it properly. That bridge should have been closed before this tragedy happened."

"The profits that these companies make as monopolies anger many people ... a lot of money should have been invested in security, but instead it went towards dividends."

A government source suggested Italy may seek to fine Autostrade rather than withdraw its concession because the latter could involve a long legal fight and risk the government being ordered to pay compensation to the company.

Shipping industry sources said the bridge collapse, which severed the main artery feeding Genoa's Voltri container terminal, had yet to impact on port operations but was likely in coming months to ripple through the wider supply chain.

A spokeswoman for Denmark's AP Moller Maersk, which owns the world's no. 1 container shipping line, said: "Reaching Genoa will remain challenging in the coming period but main connections from/to Vado and main inland markets will not be affected."

Experts and those who lived near the 50-year-old bridge have said the structure began to encounter problems within two decades of its construction. Pieces of concrete were falling off the bridge as long ago as the 1980s, one resident said.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared a state of emergency for Genoa, one of Italy's busiest ports, whose main land corridor with France has effectively been severed. REUTERS