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The lesson from Genoa

The collapse, during a storm, of a 200-metre stretch of a bridge in Genoa a few days ago, when about 30 vehicles plunged 45 metres to a dried riverbed, warehouses and railway tracks below, killing at least 38 people, is a major tragedy that generated huge anger across Italy.

This was merely the latest in a series of bridge disasters in Italy that have been linked to shoddy construction, corrupt contracting and mafia infiltration. The civil engineering society in Italy has called for a ‘Marshall Plan’ to repair or replace tens of thousands of bridges built with reinforced concrete in the 1950s and 1960s that have outlived their sell-by date.

Malta has, even if unofficially, offered its help. More importantly, it must examine whether there are any lessons to be learnt from this horrific tragedy. While there are only a handful of concrete bridges and flyovers in this country, modern construction methods, especially of large complexes and high-rise buildings, use large amounts of concrete.

We have already experienced one major construction debacle – fortunately involving no loss of life – at Mater Dei Hospital. Serious questions arose – not too long after its opening – about the quality and safety of its construction. A plan to build additional floors had to be abandoned because comprehensive structural tests by an independent London-based firm indicated the building would not support them.

The fundamental problem which stress tests exposed was that the strength of concrete mix used in building the country’s largest hospital may have been deficient, thus weakening the structures throughout the hospital. There was a lot of hullabaloo at first but, by time, it was business as usual, Mater Dei still stands and there were no specific warnings about the edifice being structurally unsafe or unusable.

However, fears do persist about some of the handful of bridges and flyovers, excluding the newly-built Kappara flyover and the recently-repaired Manwel Dimech bridge. Serious worries have been expressed particularly about the state of the Marsa-Qormi flyover – built over 50 years ago – near the Maltapost head office, which carries thousands of vehicles a day. The Malta Independent yesterday reported that preliminary studies commissioned by Infrastructure Malta indicated that visible spalling did not affect structural stability.

The government agency, which is responsible for the country’s road-building and infrastructure, has pledged an “unprecedented” investment in the sustainable and forward-looking development of land transport infrastructure, according to The Malta Independent. Building new roads and junctions to ensure a better flow of traffic is, of course, imperative but their constant upkeep is just as necessary.

That is a message clearly conveyed by the Genoa disaster.

Design flaws in construction and the wear and tear from weather and heavy traffic that, as now experienced in Malta, has surpassed what the present bridges and flyovers were originally built to sustain are hazards not to be overlooked. The Morandi bridge collapse highlights the need for regular and thorough maintenance, an area of Maltese project administration in which we tend to be especially negligent.

The government’s first duty is to ensure the public’s safety. This involves regular comprehensive inspections of bridges and flyovers. The Minister for Infrastructure would do well to set the public’s mind at rest that all our inventory of bridges and concrete flyovers are fully fit for purpose.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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