Infrastructure: An upgraded road system is the most pressing need

There are no longer any border controls on the Polish-German frontier but, driving into Poland through the city of Görlitz-Zgorzelec, there is no doubt that jurisdictions have changed. The smooth autobahn peters out just past the border to be replaced by a chaotic two-lane road clogged with trucks and cars.

The scene is repeated along Poland’s frontiers on both the east and west, stark proof that in the 19 years since the end of communism the country has been singularly unable to build a modern transport system. It only has 300km of expressways and 760km of higher-grade highways.

Poland is under enormous pressure to improve its roads, railways and airports in the run-up to the 2012 European football championships it is co-hosting with Ukraine.

While the inhabitants of most countries turn to the weather when they run out of other things to talk about, in Poland the topic is road-related horror stories. The cost of a lack of a modern road system is high, in lives and money.

The number of cars on the road since communism ended in 1989 has more than doubled, and they are much faster and more powerful than those of socialist times. The result has been carnage – Poland has almost 14 road fatalities per 100,000 people, more than double the rate of safer EU countries.

Throughout the 1990s, Poland only spent about 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product on its transport infrastructure, while most OECD countries spend closer to 2 per cent.

The lack of spending came at a time when the country was integrating into the European economy and becoming an important transit country, which put thousands of additional heavy trucks a year on to already overcrowded roads.

Because there are no highways to the underdeveloped east of the country, investors have given the area a wide berth, despite higher levels of unemployment than in the west.

The economic impact of highways can be seen in Rzeszow, the main city in south-east Poland, where developers are beginning to snap up land along the route of the projected A4 highway which will run from Germany to Ukraine.

The main reasons Poland has failed to produce a rapid road-building programme are badly written laws and an over-formalistic bureaucracy. In one symptom of the enormous inefficiency in the system, the government agency in charge of highway construction was unable to spend 1bn zlotys of its budget last year, and the year before only spent 60 per cent.

Public tenders to build roads were often delayed and overturned when the losing parties protested. Environmental regulations did not follow EU procedures.

It was also very difficult to expropriate land for building. In a reaction to the sweeping nationalisations of the communist period, democratic Poland made it very easy for recalcitrant owners to hold up building projects.

In one case in Warsaw, the Gmurek family has been fighting with the city for two decades over their house, which dangerously narrows one of the city’s main arteries.

For many years, lack of money was also a hindrance, although now that Poland is in the EU that is no longer an issue – the current government has 121bn zlotys ($40bn) to spend on roads, 35bn zlotys of which come from the Union. “We never had this kind of money before,” says Adrian Furgalski, a transport analyst with TOR, a consultancy.

Politics also caused problems, with newly elected governments often overturning their predecessors’ plans, or tearing up contracts with building companies that had fallen out of favour, further delaying construction.

That has made roads an acutely political problem that figures in every election campaign, the last one being no exception.

When Donald Tusk, the prime minister, and his pro-business Civic Platform party won power last year, one of their main promises was finally to speed up the construction of highways and expressways and to modernise the creaking railway system.

Cezary Grabarczyk, the infrastructure minister and, significantly, a lawyer not an engineer, has spent much of the past year preparing legislative reforms aimed at unblocking road construction. “Past procedures simply didn’t allow the money to be spent,” he says.

While Mr Grabarczyk is often seen as one of the most endangered ministers in Mr Tusk’s cabinet, he has managed to trim the paperwork that clogged decision making.

Over the past year he has signed agreements to build 220km of highways, and hopes to sign an additional 270km before the end of the year.

Mr Grabarczyk has also backtracked on the previous right-wing government’s distaste for public-private partnerships, allowing private companies to build parts of the A1 north-south highway and the A2, which will connect Warsaw to Germany.

In total, the government hopes to complete0 almost 1,000km of highways and 1,500km of expressways by 2012, as well as modernising hundreds of kilometres of railway track and rebuilding many of the country’s devastated train stations.

Drivers passing by Görlitz-Zgorzelec won’t have to wait as long for relief: a new highway is supposed to open early next year.

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