Poland's long road to better infrastructure

WARSAW — Cezary Grabarczyk made an excellent campaign ad during the 2007 elections that showed him shoving his way through brush and forest, looking for where Poland’s main east-west highway was supposed to be.

Taking a poke at the previous government for not building roads was pretty easy, but now that Grabarczyk is Poland’s infrastructure minister, he is finding himself in the hot seat as ambitious plans to build 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) of highways and expressways before the 2012 European soccer championships, which Poland is co-hosting, look increasingly endangered.

Poland’s dreadful roads are one of the signal failures of the last 20 years of democratic government, as administrations of both the left and the right have proven unable to break through inertia and bureaucratic obstruction and rapidly build a highway system.

For many years, lack of money was also a hindrance, although now that Poland is in the European Union that is no longer an issue — the current government has 121 billion zlotys ($35 billion) to spend on roads, 35 billion zlotys of which come from the EU.

The basic vision for the highway system has been in place since the 1970s, a main north-south highway running from Gdansk, on the Baltic, to the Czech border in the south, and two east-west highways, one running along the south and the other connecting Berlin to Warsaw.

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But over the last two decades, less than 500 miles of highways and 200 miles of lower speed expressways have been completed, and a chunk of that was not new road but a refurbishment of highways built by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. By contrast, Spain manages to build an average of about 250 miles of highway a year.

The lackluster building program has severe consequences. Investors have been put off by the lack of a decent highway network. The current system of narrow roads winding through towns and villages clogged by transport trucks and impatient drivers passing in places that would make Americans blanch has also taken a toll in lives.

Poland has more than 5,000 traffic deaths a year, a per-driver rate that is more than double the EU average.

Salvation was to come in the form of the 2012 soccer championship, which Poland is hosting together with neighboring Ukraine. In winning their joint bid, both countries had to promise to revamp their airports, construct world-class stadiums, get investors to put up lots of new hotels, and, crucially, build a modern highway infrastructure so that fans can safely travel from game to game.

Initially, the proposal to build 1,800 miles of new roads was seen as ambitious but not completely unrealistic. But over the last two years the pace of new construction has not picked up noticeably. Adrian Furgalski, a transportation expert with TOR, a Warsaw consultancy, now says that at least 300 miles of the government’s program are in danger, and with each month the odds of connecting Warsaw to Germany look more remote.

“It’s looking very unlikely,” he says, adding that a realistic pace of construction in Poland is only about 100 miles of highway a year.

Now there are suggestions that in their desperation to get some roads completed by 2012, the government may loosen standards and allow partially completed highways to carry traffic in time for the championships.

Grabarczyk insists he can get the job done, but Prime Minister Donald Tusk is increasing the pressure on him, aware that he will pay the political price if Poles cannot drive across the country on modern roads in three years time.

“The prime minister is very upset about what is happening in road construction,” Zbigniew Chlebowski, parliamentary leader for the ruling Civic Platform party, told reporters recently.

Not long after he became minister, Grabarczyk vowed that he would quit as minister if he wasn’t able to drive from the German to the Polish capital by highway in 2012. At the current rate of building, that would put his job very much in danger.

If he is forced to face reelection, Grabarczyk could save money in one area — he wouldn’t have to re-shoot his old campaign video, because much of the stretch of future highway between Warsaw and the central Polish city of Lodz is still forest.

Other GlobalPost stories about roads:

 Beiruit's unruly roads

A Polish murder, and bad roads

Cruising the cobblestones

Beware the road pirates