New states’ love affair with roads must stop
9 September 2011, ENDS Europe
The bulk of European funds allocated to transport in central and eastern European countries is used to build roads, which reduces the attractiveness of rail and helps justify even more investment in roads. The EU must help break this pattern.
The EU made a bold move in 2006 with the adoption of its sustainable development strategy, including provisions to make the European transport system more sustainable. One of the main objectives is to promote alternatives to road transport.
But our experience working in central and eastern European countries shows that national authorities use EU regional funds available to them to pursue opposite goals to those in the 2006 strategy; these funds are being poured into road projects.
A study issued this week by Bankwatch shows how four new member states – Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Estonia – have been massively directing EU funds at road developments since 2007. In Poland, for example, out of the €19.4bn available for transport, €10bn went on roads. In Bulgaria, roads got 65% of the funds.
The Poles and Czechs have also been trying to reallocate funds initially dedicated to rail development towards roads. It is the same for Slovakia, which is not covered by the study.
And this is happening in a context where the rail sector is already the Cinderella of transport development in these countries. In Poland for example, only 1% of EU funds allocated to rail has been spent. In Bulgaria, with very limited investments over the past two decades, the sector now finds itself in a virtual state of collapse, and the share of passenger and freight transport by rail is now the smallest in Europe.
Governments attempting to reallocate even more funds towards roads argue that investment on rail has been more difficult to absorb. But our study makes it clear that this is because rail sector reforms have been delayed for many years, and because it has been a low political priority. Projects that do get EU funding are sometimes not implemented because no national co-financing is given to them.
This is a vicious circle where the more rail gets squeezed, the less competitive it becomes, making road development much more attractive for investors.
Not only is excessive reliance on roads contrary to the EU’s sustainability goals, it also affects its energy security since most of the oil that feeds road transport is imported. Bulgaria, for instance, imports 70% of its oil, most of which comes from Russia. It therefore makes little sense for eastern European states to make such decisions.
The lack of transparent tender procedures, faulty environmental impact assessments and poor public participation in decision-making certainly make the matter worse. Our study shows this is particularly a problem in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
Local environmental groups are fighting year after year in a turf war with their national authorities over the type of transport system – and consequently development – that should be pursued in central and eastern Europe. But only the intervention of EU policymakers is likely to make a significant difference.
In January, the European Commission called on member states to use regional funds more effectively to promote sustainable transport, indicating measures they could take in this direction. But such a soft approach has had little impact on their decisions.
The forthcoming EU guidelines on how regional funds should be spent are an opportunity to make sure bad spenders will be punished with immediate withdrawal of funds.
And the next EU budget should explicitly link funds to sustainable transport systems. We fear that only a strong ‘stick and carrot’ approach can make a difference in our region.
Institution: EU Funds