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Poland's long road to better infrastructure

The race is on as the country prepares to co-host the 2012 European soccer championships.

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.