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03/03/2016
"VARIANTE DI VALICO": A REALISTIC VIEW

Infrastructures

 

Landslides, delays, soaring costs. Not to mention a missing stretch between Barberino and Firenze Nord. But, at the same time, a project that finally unites Italy. A turning point, and yet not really appreciated by the national media. Is the automobile the new enemy?

Massimo Lanari

One day, maybe, someone will do justice to the infrastructural turning point – whether good or bad – that our country has recently experienced. Just stop and think for a moment: how many of you, 10 years ago, would have placed a single euro on the fact that, by 2016, Italy would have, a TAV (high-speed rail network) between Torino and Salerno, a Mestre bypass, the Outer East Ring road in Milan, the Brebemi, the A36 north of Milan, the A1 Motorway deviation between Bologna and Firenze and the Valdastico sud? Probably few. The latest arrival, the A1 Motorway deviation, represents a turning point, after decades of projects, debates and even protests by hauliers. Yet, its inauguration, inexplicably, went almost unnoticed. Strangely enough, the colossal queue created during the inauguration of the project received more media coverage than the end result. Sure, it took a rather long time, costs doubled, landslides and the eternal delays that harm the competitiveness of our economy, devastated in the meantime by the worst crisis ever, made many of these great projects rather oversized. And then, taking a look around the country we still find some of the old scandals: the Salerno-Reggio Calabria, for example, still not completed. Today, after 19 years of work, 355 km of the new motorway have been completed out of a total of 443 km, work is still in progress on a stretch of 20 km, while ongoing tendering should soon see work starting on a further 25 km with the last 43 km still waiting for the necessary funds. Not to mention the E45, plagued by ongoing construction sites due to the poor quality of the materials used, as even Anas had to finally admit. And we haven’t even  mentioned the “ghost”, the Straits of Messina bridge or the incomplete Tyrrhenian Motorway. Still, the traditional italic pessimism seems to be able, every time, to overshadow any good news. But perhaps, this time, there is something more. A growing distance between the ruling class, the country’s media and its "intelligentsia" and everything that has to do with cars, often considered just a "polluting element" - but are they aware of the severe limits on emissions? - and less appreciated by the newer generations. How could we explain, otherwise, the tragicomic speed limit of 30 km / h in urban centers, authorized by the government (each municipality will decide on its own) in case emission limits are overrun for more than 7 consecutive days?

 

 

The project

Let us try to analyze the A1 Motorway deviation. It’s a new 32 km long motorway that will bypass some sections of the old route, which will remain operative, and represents a valid alternative for motorists. A further 19 km section enlarged to 3 lanes in both directions back in 2007 are found between Sasso Marconi and La Quercia, as well as 6 km between Aglio and Barberino del Mugello. The only drawback is that motorists entering the motorway from Barberino cannot take the old route. 

 

Queues, debates and snail trucks

To identify the reasons that led to the decision of building a new motorway on the Apennines, we just need to take a look at the old one. Just two lanes in each direction, sharp/blind bends (particularly dangerous for heavy transport vehicles) and its huge volume of traffic: about 98 thousand vehicles per day including 24 thousand trucks. Three times more than expected at the time of construction of the old “Autostrada del Sole” between Milan and Rome, opened in 1964 after just 4 years of debates and planning and 8 years of construction. It took 24 years of debates and 9 years of construction to complete the A1 motorway deviation, starting from the first idea back in 1982. Not bad! Not to mention that, to get the job done, it took almost a war: battles with environmentalists (particularly memorable were clashes between Di Pietro and the Minister of the Environment, Edo Ronchi, at the time of the first Prodi government), and even a protest by transport companies, exasperated by the overtaking ban imposed on heavy duty vehicles in 1999 in an attempt to improve the flow of traffic. A protest that was subsequently cancelled thanks to the A1 deviation “mirage”.

 

                                                                                            

The Ripoli landslide

A deviation, or double highway, thanks to which Italy will no longer be split in half in case of accidents or road-works. If there is a problem on one of the routes, an alternative is now available. And, in normal situations, you can choose between two Motorways, one of which is shorter and contributes in speeding up the traffic reducing fuel consumption and harmful emissions, especially for heavy transport vehicles. Much of the new “Variante di Valico” is in fact constituted by 41 tunnels covering 50% of the bypass, with just as many viaducts covering 16.4 km. The Base Tunnel, in particular, with its length of 8.6 km and two arches with sections of more than 180 square meters, is a unique project, one of global significance. The Sparvo and Val di Sambro tunnels with sections of up to 200 square meters (2.5 and 3.8 km respectively) are also unique, given the complexity of the engineering solutions adopted both for their design and creation. Particularly noteworthy is “Martina” the world’s largest tunnel boring machine.  Of course, there were also problems. Starting with an old landslide that was made unstable again by the construction of the Val di Sambro tunnel, near Ripoli (Bologna). A landslide that became the subject of a film, “Storie sospese” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, as well as an investigation by the judiciary. The landslide, according to “Autostrade per l’Italia”, apparently stopped following the end of the tunnel excavation, though local citizens claim that it could have been avoided altogether if the tunnel had been bored deeper in the bedrock.

 

 

Lead time and costs

When, in 1997, it was decided that the “Variante di Valico” would have been financed exclusively by “Autostrade per l’Italia” - and therefore, indirectly financed by tolls from motorists and hauliers - in the face of an extension of the concession until 2038, the total cost was estimated at 2.5 billion euro. In reality, 4.1 billion euro have been spent. "In any case - according to “Autostrade” - the increase in costs is largely below the cost of other less demanding projects". Certainly, the Ripoli landslide had an impact on the project execution time: started in 2006, the end was initially planned for 2013, and has since been postponed to the end of 2015.

 

Traffic forecasts                                                                     

But how will the traffic flow between the two routes? According to forecasts made by “Autostrade” some time ago, "the vast majority of heavy duty vehicles (90%) will use the new bypass and only 10% will remain on the older motorway: as far as cars and light transport vehicles 40% will move on the new “Variante di Valico” while 60% will remain on the existing motorway". Were these forecasts accurate? Too early to tell. For sure, information panels will play a vital role, since they have been entrusted with the task of recommending the best route based on weather and traffic conditions. Meanwhile, curiosity is apparently encouraging the use of the new route. At a guess, all transport vehicles, without exception, and the vast majority of motorists are choosing the new route. Time will tell.

 

A new bottleneck                                                            

Is it safe to say that those legendary traffic jams between Barberino del Mugello and Roncobilaccio – which have even featured in songs! - are finally a thing of the past? Yes and no. The third lane built between Bologna Casalecchio and La Quercia and  the one between Firenze Nord and Sud are still connected by a 2-lane section that runs between Barberino and Firenze Nord and represents a potential bottleneck. Here too, a new 3-lane southbound section is scheduled for 2020, while the northbound section will continue to have 2 lanes. The cost, if we take into account the third lane Firenze Sud-Incisa, where works have not yet begun, is 2,171 million Euro. No distractions allowed, constant monitoring is required, especially when it comes to infrastructures. 

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