Poland’s highway overhaul

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Despite the huge amounts of money spent on Polish roads over the past few years, the country’s high-speed road infrastructure is still patchy at best, although the new EU budget for 2014-2020 promises to change this

by John Beauchamp

Ten years ago, traveling across Poland by car was the stuff of nightmares. Major east-west routes were single-lane in each direction and invariably rutted, with traffic made that much more dangerous with the presence of juggernauts carrying their cargo at breakneck speeds. While admittedly there are still some roads like this in Poland, the situation is now adversely different.

Observer 004 May 2014-34Poland’s major road overhaul went into overdrive as the country geared up to host the Euro 2012 soccer championship along with Ukraine. Prime Minister Donald Tusk promised hundreds of kilometers of new highways and expressways. With such a tight deadline, it’s understandable that not all the promised roads were in fact completed.

However, the major A2-E30 highway, which links Poland’s western border in Świecko (and Berlin) with Warsaw, was completed with under 48 hours to go before the first kick-off of the championship, and the A4-E40 highway from Zgorzelec to Kraków was also delivered on time. All that needs to be done now is extend the roads to the borders with Belarus and Ukraine respectively.
But even with all these new highways, the European Commission still lambasted Poland at the end of 2013 by saying that the country’s road (and rail) infrastructure still leaves a lot to be desired.

More cars, less investment
Nevertheless, a report released by consultants EY in February this year shows that the infrastructure construction sector in Poland between 2010-2012 accounted for over 13 percent of Poland’s GDP. Until 2011, it grew much faster than Poland’s economy as a whole.

observer 004 str 34In many ways, the fact that Poland did not suffer as much during the financial crisis is due to the strong position of construction firms which were building the infrastructure that the country desperately needed, and still does.
“Between 2004-2011, the share of public investments in terms of GDP grew from 3.4 to 5.7 percent,” Marek Rozkrut, EY’s chief economist said, adding that, “a considerable portion of these investments were infrastructure projects co-financed by the EU.” Indeed, between 2008 and end-2011 the construction sector grew by 55.4 percent.

Poland’s road capacity has also been stretched to the limit, as between 2000-2005 the number of cars increased by 22 percent, and then between 2005-2009 by 33.7 percent. At the end of 2012, there were 18.8 million registered passenger cars in Poland, according to figures from Poland’s Central Statistical Office.

EU budget to the rescue
However, the good times for the infrastructure sector came to an abrupt end in early 2012. From the beginning of 2012 to the third quarter of 2013 it shrunk by almost 40 percent. This was accompanied by hundreds of bankruptcies in the sector.

With such a drop in infrastructure investment, it looks as if Poland lost steam as far as building roads goes. At the end of 2011, Poland’s Directorate for National Roads and Motorways (GDDKiA) branded 42.2 percent of the roads under its remit as unsatisfactory or in poor condition – a combined total of 3,250 kilometers.

However, the EU’s new budget for 2014-2020 is expected to change all that. Poland is expected to receive €73 billion over the coming years, and while not all of it will be spent on building or modernizing new roads, a fair chunk will go into carrying out much needed infrastructure investments.

Eyes on the ball
To get the ball rolling, the GDDKiA announced tenders for the construction of segments of seven new expressways across the country, and spending on new expressways until the end of 2018 is expected to reach as much as PLN 32.1 billion. Furthermore, tenders for the construction of eleven belt roads are to be announced in due course, with PLN 4.7 billion earmarked for the purpose in 2014 and 2015.

However, with the new EU budget comes greater responsibility. All eyes will be on the transparency of the tenders, especially since the European Commission found a high risk of corruption in Poland, with 32 percent of tenders in Poland involving bribery.

It isn’t all bad news, however. Poland’s roads are becoming better, and despite the constant grumbling that they could be improved, the highways which are built are of the latest spec and conform to the latest regulations, unlike much of the outdated road infrastructure in Western Europe.

Indeed, as a result, Poland’s new highways were deemed so good that from the beginning of 2011, Poland became one of a handful of European countries where the speed limit on highways was lifted to 140 kph. Only Germany can beat that.

 

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