Vienna, March 8 – Russia ranks 118th out of 133 countries, right alongside Mozambique and Burundi, in terms of the quality of its highways, according to the latest report of the World Economic Forum, a ranking that is the result, Russian investigators say, of the outmoded construction practices and massive corruption such practices invite.
But what is still worse, according to a set of articles in the current issue of Moscow’s “New Times,” the poor quality of Russian highways is not only limiting economic growth by slowing the movement of freight and increasing its cost but also resulting in the second highest rate of highway fatalities in the world.
And as if to add insult to all these injuries, the weekly magazine cites experts who say the actual size of Russia’s highway system has declined over the past 15 years, despite the government’s use of statistical manipulation to allow the powers that be to claim that there has been a slight increase instead (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/16932/).
For more than 150 years, Russians have said that their two chief problems are “duraki” and “dorogi” (fools and roads). But now at the beginning of the 21st century, “New Times” writes, this “problem has become even more severe,” with too small a highway network, too slow construction of new roads, and too low quality in both cases.
The economic impact of Russia’s inadequate roads, the weekly continues, is clear from a comparison with the situation in the European Union. There, trucks carrying goods average 1000 kilometers a day, three and a third times as far as Russian trucks do, and while trucks carry 76 percent of all freight in Europe, they carry only nine percent of it in Russia.
And those figures in turn, Russian experts cited by “New Times” say, translate into much higher costs for Russia than for its competitors in the EU. Moving freight is 50 percent most costly in Russia than it is in European Union countries, and Russian haulers spend a third more on fuel than do European ones.
A major reason for this is that Russia does not have enough highways and is not building many. Vladislav Inozemtsev, the head of the Moscow Center for Research on Post-Industrial Societies, says that from 1995 through 2007, the length of automobile highways, according to Rosstat, practically remained unchanged.”
In 1995, the country had 940,000 kilometers of such roads, he notes, and in 2007, it had only 23,000 kilometers more, according to official statistics. But in fact, Inozemtsev continues, the real figures would show a nine percent decline, something the government masked by including local roads officials had not counted before.
Anticipating criticism that it is “not entirely correct” to compare “enormous and relatively poor Russia with compact and well-off Europe,” “New Times” points out that other comparisons, in particular with what is taking place in China, are possible and hardly show Russia at an advantage.
China, with an area a little more than half the size of the Russian Federation, not only has more roads – some 1,900,000 kilometers – than Russia does but is building them much more rapidly – in 2008, Beijing built 53,600 kilometers of highways, 21.4 times as many as Russia – and plans to extend its highway network to 3,000,000 kilometers by 2030.
But Russia’s problems with its roadways are not just a question of size: “Only 40 percent of federal highways correspond to [international] norms concerning the quality of the pavement and the width of the lanes,” the weekly says. As a result, Russia ranks with Mozambique, and Burundi, “and in Kazakhstan, Uganda, Mauritania, and Lesotho, the quality of roads is higher.”
This situation should not be continuing, “New Times” suggests, given that Moscow continues to spend so much money on roads. In the 2010 federal budget, the weekly notes, 263.4 billion rubles (9 billion US dollars) is allocated for highways, only a little less than the 271.1 billion rubles budgeted in the pre-crisis year of 2008.
Perhaps to the surprise of many, Russians are spending more per kilometer than the Americans are – “One kilometer of the Krasnodar-Novorossiysk highway costs the Russian budget six times more than the American taxpayers pay” – and they are getting less – Russian roads last only 10-12 years while those in climatically similar Sweden last 40 years.
That too entails enormous costs to the Russian economy, and it could relatively easily be changed if Russian road builders were to adopt the standard practice, increasingly used even in China, of putting iron and steel plinths in the concrete to give them greater stability and longer life, something Russian concerns do not yet do.
That would not only save money but it would save lives. According to the World Health Organization, “New Times” says, “Russia occupies the second place in the world [in highway deaths] – 25.2 per 100,000 people,” second only to Kazakhstan with 30.6 deaths per 100,000 residents.
Given all the advantages of building more and better roads, the news weekly asks, why do Russian enterprises not do it? And it says that “the answer which experts gives unanimously is corruption,” a plague which “boosts the price of the construction of roads tens of times” and one bureaucrats don’t fight because they can earn more by not doing so.