The collapse of a highway bridge in the northern Italian coastal region of Liguria in November and of one in nearby Genoa last year appear to have very different causes. But they raise similar questions, not only about the state of Italy’s infrastructure, but about the decision to entrust much of it to private operators, along with whether a country famed for its coasts and mountains is ready for the disruptions of climate change. Meanwhile, the coalition government is feeling the strain from the debate, as a push to strip the main toll-road operator of its lucrative contracts gains momentum.

1. Why did the bridges collapse?

There is an ongoing judicial investigation into the 2018 Morandi bridge disaster in Genoa, which killed 43 people. The 1.1 kilometer-long viaduct running through the northern city was built in the 1960s. A ministerial commission argued that Autostrade per l’Italia, which manages most of Italy’s toll roads, underestimated the deterioration of the structure. The company rebuffed those claims, saying it followed procedure and the law as its safety checks had triggered no alarms. The second bridge, operated by Societa Iniziative Autostradali e Servizi SpA, known as SIAS, fell during a mudslide caused by heavy rains. The company said the collapse was inevitable due to the force of the landslide.

2. Who runs Italy’s highways?

Autostrade manages 3,000 kilometers of toll roads in Italy, about half of the total. It was privatized in the late 1990s, with concessions running until 2042. Autostrade is now 88% owned by Atlantia SpA, whose largest shareholder is the Benetton family, founders of the United Colors of Benetton and Sisley brands. SIAS manages 1,423 kilometers of highways in Italy, mainly in the country’s northwest.

3. Who checks that maintenance is being done?

Operators are responsible for maintenance of highway bridges and tunnels. They’ve until recently relied on internal units to carry out safety checks for their infrastructure. The Transportation Ministry is responsible for making sure the highway companies abide by the terms of concession contracts. After the Morandi collapse, a new oversight agency was proposed but it hasn’t been fully set up yet. Autostrade has stepped up efforts to strengthen viaducts with 500 million euros ($554 million) in maintenance work, although none of it has been classified as urgent or requiring immediate action, according to the company’s website. In the meantime two viaducts on the A26 highway were temporarily shut for safety checks requested by Genoa-based prosecutors as part of the Morandi probe.

4. What’s the government saying?

Italy’s government has two main coalition parties: the Five Star Movement, which has been calling for Autostrade’s concessions to be fully revoked, and the Democratic Party, which favors revision of the concession deal.

5. Will Atlantia lose its Italian concession?

Autostrade’s concession runs through 2042 and includes a costly break-up clause that requires the government to “prove serious negligence in maintenance works, which is not going to be straightforward,” Giorgio Ragazzi, a professor of public finance at Bergamo University, said in the wake of the Morandi accident. According to the 2007 concession terms, the state can revoke the contract if Autostrade is in “serious breach” of its obligation to maintain and repair the roads. Autostrade has said it always fulfilled its obligations and maintenance was carried out “on the basis of the best international standards.”

6. What has climate change got to do with this?

Despite two major highway bridge collapses and natural disasters, Italy is in denial about the dangers it faces from floods and landslides, also known as hydro-geological risks. It has almost a fifth of its territory at high risk of landslide or floods, according to the Italian institute for protection and environment research. The government has already set aside 11 billion euros over three years to counter those risks. But slowness in directing funds locally means regions are only using a fifth of allocated yearly funds, the state audit court said. More than 90% of infrastructure problems are due to hydro-geological factors, said Francesco Peduto, president of the national council of geologists.

--With assistance from Luca Casiraghi.

To contact the reporters on this story: Marco Bertacche in Milan at;Antonio Vanuzzo in London at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tal Barak Harif at, John O’Neil, Jerrold Colten

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