Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Why Russia Has Such Bad Roads – And Why They’re Unlikely to Improve

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 15 – Every Russian is familiar with Nikolai Gogol’s bitter observation that Russia suffers from two misfortunes, fools and bad roads. And anyone who lives in or even visits the Russian Federation knows that that country’s roads are in almost all cases in a truly deplorable state.
Given its size, Russia has a very small network of roads. But even where roads do exist, their state is truly appalling: The average speed of travel on them is only half that found in developed countries. Cars and trucks use 50 percent more fuel. And both the costs of maintaining vehicles and the rate of replacements required are higher as well.
Often Russians blame this situation on their harsh climate, but Canada and Finland have good highways despite being equally northern. And sometimes they blame it on a kind of Russian mysticism. But according to an analysis posted online this week, the real reasons lie elsewhere (http://www.razgovor.org/projects/article43/).
First of all, Russia has some of the worst soils in the world for the construction of roadbeds. Most of the country’s soil is mixed with clay or loam, materials that readily absorb water but do not allow the water to flow out equally quickly. As a result, the thawing and freezing of the water in the soil leads to the breakup of highway surface.
Second, Russian officials have failed to impose higher compacting standards and to import or develop the technology to do so. Indeed, Russia has not changed its compacting standards since 1939. Were it to increase them by only five percent, as the U.S. did in 1946, Russian roads would more than twice as long as they do.
At present, Russia produces much smaller pneumatic compactors than do Western countries and has been reluctant to important more powerful models from abroad. But at the same time, Russian officials have refused to back an innovative domestic machine, including one that relies on vibration rather than pressure to compact the soil.
The article includes the full texts of four different letters to senior officials about these possibilities but notes that unfortunately despite the fact that everyone involved knows what needs to be done and even says he or she is in favor of it, nothing has happened over the last generation.
Indeed, the inventor of the new compaction-by-vibration technology became so frustrated with such hypocrisy and indifference that he finally decided the only way out of his situation was to emigrate from Russia and move to a country where his ideas might be taken seriously.
And third, the firms which build Russian roads know that there is far more money in repairing existing roads even if they will soon need to be repaired again than in building new and better highways that will carry traffic more rapidly and last longer. Moreover, these firms regularly pressure the government to maintain the existing system.
The amount of money involved every year with Russia’s highways is truly enormous, even given the sad state of the network and the even sadder state of the highways themselves. And that in turn means that the politics surrounding the use of these funds are intense.
In 2002, for example, Moscow allotted 54 billion rubles – some two billion U.S. dollars -- for road construction and repair, the study notes. But unfortunately, it allocated two-thirds of this money for repairs and only one-third for the construction of new roads. That means Russian roads will not get better anytime soon but instead quickly fall apart.
Until that changes, until the Russian government honestly addresses the nature of the problem rather than providing funds to those who make the highest contributions to politicians and officials, Gogol’s observation about Russia’s twin misfortunes will remain at least half right if not indeed completely true.

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