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Europe questions safety of bridges after Genoa tragedy

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There had been years of dire warnings about fundamental design and maintenance problems with the Genoa bridge before it failed on Aug 14.

London

THE collapse of a highway bridge last week in Genoa, Italy, that killed 43 people has set off warnings across Europe about ageing infrastructure and the need for new inspections, better record-keeping and more investment.

Experts say many Western countries, including the United States, do not spend nearly enough on maintaining or replacing older bridges and other structures, a problem that worsened after the financial collapse of 2008.

Engineers caution that the difference between a serious weakness and a catastrophic one might be evident only in hindsight. There had been years of dire warnings about fundamental design and maintenance problems with the Genoa bridge before it failed on Aug 14, but other deadly collapses around the world have been preceded by assessments that the bridges were in no imminent danger.

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How safe, then, are highways and bridges in Europe?

A study commissioned by France's transportation ministry, which was released in June, found that "all the indicators reveal a strong deterioration in the national road network". Yet few people noticed until tragedy struck Genoa.

In the past week, the French news media have seized on the report as evidence of what Le Monde, a leading newspaper, called "chronic underinvestment" in a highway system that includes 12,000 bridges. Much reporting has focused on the report's conclusion that about 7 per cent of bridges have damage that could eventually result in collapse if not addressed - though that outcome could be decades away.

On average, it takes 22 years for a bridge to be repaired after it first shows signs of degradation, the consultants who conducted the study reported. They said that spending on the upkeep of highways and bridges needed to double, and noted that France spends far less per mile on maintenance than Britain does.

After the collapse in Italy, the transportation ministry said it would put forward a new law dealing with infrastructure planning.

While there is unease about bridges and highways in France, the government's awareness of the problem and the absence of major bridge failures in decades have tamped down the public outcry.

Many studies and news reports in Germany in recent years raised alarms about underinvestment in infrastructure maintenance.

Richard Dietrich, an architect and a bridge designer, even told the Hannoversche Allgemeine newspaper that Germany's bridges were "rotting dangerously".

But politicians and some engineers insist that fearful news coverage since the Genoa disaster is overblown. Infrastructure spending in Germany has rebounded recently, and Andreas Scheuer, the federal transport minister, said the government would spend 1.3 billion euros (S$2.1 billion) on bridge replacement and renovation this year.

"In Germany, we have a proven system of controls for bridges," he told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag. "I put my trust in it and citizens can trust it, too."

Many of Germany's bridges, like Italy's, date to the era of postwar reconstruction and are showing signs of age. In recent years, some major highway bridges have been closed to heavy trucks because of stability concerns. The problem is less pronounced in the less affluent eastern part of the country, where much of the infrastructure was upgraded or replaced after East and West Germany were reunified in the 1990s.

In what officials said was a coincidence of timing, repairs began Monday on the Rader bridge about 20 miles east of the northern city of Kiel, which in 2013 was found to have damage to 29 support posts.

Of the 39,621 bridges monitored by the federal government, 10.6 per cent are in a condition that is not satisfactory, and 1.8 per cent are in "inadequate" condition, needing urgent repair, according to the Federal Highway Research Institute.

But Germany has a thorough inspection regimen that is tracked by the central government, with each bridge surveyed at least once every three years.

"Every six years, bridges are inspected extensively and closely - the inspector taps or scans the structure centimetre by the centimetre," Burkhard K├Âtter, a bridge expert, told the German automobile association ADAC. NYTIMES