In the 1960s Italian motorways started to connect the poorer south with the industrial north—and beyond

Amid the splendour of Michelangelo’s architectural innovations at the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill, delegates from six European countries signed the Treaty of Rome on 25 March 1957. The treaty, which included the articles that founded the European Investment Bank, was “a declaration of future good intentions,” according to one historian. For two weeks, we are publishing a series of stories to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the treaty—one for each decade of the EIB story. These are stories of how the EIB helped turn good intentions into reality.

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Let us start this story of the six decades of the European Investment Bank with a project that began 2 200 years ago and was finally brought to completion only in our own decade.

Crossing the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines between the cities of Florence and Bologna has always been a challenge. The mountain ridges shaped the history of Italy—and the design of the country’s road system. They were a barrier to Hannibal, the Carthaginian military commander, whose forces ran into serious difficulties in the marshes of the River Arno when he crossed the Apennines and came down to Pistoia and Fiesole in 217 BC. The first attempts to create a true road connecting the areas north of the Apennines to the south did not take shape until the Roman Consul Gaius Flaminius established the “Flaminia Minor” in 189 BC. It was a route for military use that went from Claternae, near Bologna, to Arezzo, south of Florence. Flaminius aimed to create a quick means of communication and control over the territories of Emilia and Romagna, which Rome had recently conquered. 

The consul’s contribution, however, never reached the status of the other consular roads, the high-speed motorways of the Roman era. Probably this was due to the problems experienced by travellers at high elevations as the road passed through the Apennines. In fact, it was no longer marked in the Tabula Peutingeriana, an ancient Roman map drawn up in 360 AD to show all the military roads of the Roman Empire, including details of stopover points, distances from cities and the courses of rivers. The absence of the Flaminia Minor from the Tabula indicates that the road had fallen out of use.

Not until the Autostrada del Sole project of the late 1950s and early 1960s did a highway link forge its way through the Apennines between Bologna and Florence. The A1 was a vital economic move for Italy, a country which is everywhere bounded by formidable natural boundaries in the form of the Alps, the Apennines and the sea. The Autostrada joined Milan with Naples, via Rome and Florence. Prime Minister Aldo Moro officially opened it in 1964. By then, the European Investment Bank was at work in financing links and highways to expand on the A1. These roads were key to the early years of the EIB. They were aimed at linking Italy to the rest of Europe with roads that passed through the Alps, and at connecting the economically less developed south of Italy to the country’s north and, thus, to the wealthier countries beyond the Italian border. “The EIB really connected Italy to the rest of Europe and played a part in the country’s development,” says Antonino Giuffrida, a senior engineer in the Bank’s strategic roads division, who has worked on the study and appraisal of many more recent Italian highway and road projects financed by the EIB.

Busy in the Mezzogiorno

As soon as the EIB was founded, it joined with the Italian institutions responsible for the country’s economic development. The system put in place soon after the Treaty of Rome had all EIB funding for Italy channelled through intermediaries such as the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno and other institutions that specialised in long-term finance, such as the Istituto per lo Sviluppo Economico dell’Italia Meridionale. All were big Italian public financial institutions. At the same time, the EIB’s first presidents—Pietro Campilli, who was in office from February 1958 to May 1959, and Paride Formentini, who served until September 1970—were both Italians. They gave their support to the idea that Europe would prosper generally if its poorest regions were given an economic boost.

From 1959 to 1972, over 60% of EIB lending to Member States was granted to Italy, in particular the Mezzogiorno. Of this, 43% went to infrastructure projects. While the EIB loans supported businesses in the south, including chemical plants and even a brewery in Taranto, the road links to markets in the north were vital to the prosperity of all other projects. Thus the EIB financed construction of 475 kilometres of highway serving southern Italy during the period, including:

  • the Adriatic highway running from the north down to Puglia
  • a highway across the Apennines to link the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic coasts
  • two highways in Sicily linking Messina to Patti and Catania.

Elsewhere in Italy, the Bank financed other major roads during the 1960s:

  • a major section of highway in the Brenner Pass
  • the highway between Quincinetto and Aosta in the Val D’Aosta
  • in Abruzzo, a highway and the Gran Sasso tunnel
  • the Autostrada dei Fiori between San Remo and the French border

EIB finance for a range of other infrastructure in southern Italy included work done by the SIP telephone company to extend and modernise the telecommunications network. The Bank lent 30% of the total cost of five power stations at Mercure, Taloro, Gallo, Brindisi, and Salerno, which would cover 10% of the Mezzogiorno’s electricity needs. Between 1963 and the end of the decade, the regions of southern Italy that received the most EIB funding doubled productivity levels in some cases, such as Sardinia, or saw significant rises, as in Sicily and Puglia.

Against the forces of nature

Even with all these great projects, the EIB’s work on Italian roads was not finished. After all, the mountain passes through the Apennines are so high—as much as 917 metres above sea level—that the A1 was, for decades, steep and twisting on the Bologna-Florence section. The result was heavy traffic and a large number of accidents. By late last decade, this stretch of highway carried more than twice the traffic for which it was originally designed. It recorded one of the highest accident rates in Italy, with over 2 000 road accidents over the previous decade.

The EIB financed several operations to build the Variante di Valico, a new highway that was to be part of a better motorway system. It was built to accommodate four times the traffic of the previous A1, with lower gradients, smoother curves, and modern systems for traffic control and road safety. The new road is about 225 metres below the level of the previous A1. Instead of clinging to the mountainsides, it passes through them. The stretch of road includes 44 tunnels and more than 40 viaducts and bridges. 

“The execution of this project was a real battle against the forces of nature,” explains Giuffrida, who was part of the EIB team that studied the project. “From a geological point of view the new highway crossed one of the most complex areas in Europe.” The ground contained explosive gasses, as well as surface and ground water. The area is subject to high seismic activity and has the highest risk of landslides in Italy. Thus the bridges have foundations up to 30 metres deep and all the viaducts are equipped with special seismic isolators to minimise the movements of the structures in case of earthquakes.

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But the most challenging part of the project was the excavation of the tunnels. The Galleria Sparvo required the use of the biggest tunnel boring machine ever built in Europe. This massive machine was named Martina—like ships, tunnel boring machines are given female names. It had a diameter of 15.61 metres, taller than a five-storey building. Martina was also 130 metres long and at 4 500 tonnes was heavier than nine Boeing 747s. Under optimal conditions Martina could reach the remarkable speed of 22 metres per day, compared to 80-90 centimetres per day with traditional methods of excavation.

Yet the Sparvo was just one of the 44 galleries needed to complete the highway project. When the Variante di Valico highway was opened to traffic in 2015, the travel time between Bologna and Florence was cut by 50 minutes. It was as if Italy had become shorter.

Parallels in Poland

Since those early days of Italian road-building, the EIB has funded highways throughout the continent. Just as the less developed regions of Italy were hooked into a broader network during the 1960s, so newer Member States found a need to build more highways, creating connections with their new partners. When Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia joined the EU, its infrastructure showed the remnants of a Soviet preference for rail over road transport. Poland’s highway density was a mere fraction of Germany’s, for example. “The parallels with the roads that were developed in Poland and the early years of the Bank in Italy are pronounced,” says Neil Valentine, head of the strategic roads division. “The aim has been to integrate Poland into Europe, supporting the development of the single market.”

Underlying this is the philosophy of the Trans-European Networks, which goes by the acronym TEN-T in its transport manifestation. Backed by the EIB and EU grants, main arteries get priority, because they promote economic activity.

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Safety in the tunnels

Once the roads are built, the EIB’s job is not done. Increasingly the Bank is involved in projects to make those roads safer.

Road traffic injuries are among the 10 leading causes of health problems worldwide, carrying with them a huge social cost. In Italy, each year more than 3 300 people die and 250 000 people are injured in accidents on the roads. It is as if the entire population of Verona, Nottingham, Aachen, or Bordeaux had a bad traffic smash every year. The causes of accidents include vehicle technology, weather conditions, speed, traffic and even age and gender of drivers. (Accident rates are significantly higher for men than for women.) However, a large share of the traffic accidents (approximately 20%) can unquestionably be attributed to defective or ill-conceived infrastructure which cause errors of perception and increases the risks and consequences of accidents. This is particularly true of tunnels, where accidents are characterised at once by a lower probability of occurrence—and more potentially catastrophic results. That is important in Italy, which has more than 900 kilometres of road tunnels, the highest in Europe.

Since 2013 the Bank has been working to establish general agreements to finance a multi-annual programme to modernise Italy’s road network, involving ANAS, the national road authority, and ASPI, the main Italian motorway concessionaire, as well as the Ministry of Finance to manage the loans and the Ministry of Infrastructure to prioritise the investments. A first tranche of these road safety investments, distributed across all 20 Italian regions over 2 800 kilometres of motorways, 5 800 kilometres of national roads and 300 tunnels, has been financed by the Bank to the tune of EUR 500 million.

The road safety upgrades include the replacement of obsolete two-wave steel safety barriers, which were designed with traditional methods and not tested through full-scale crash tests. Instead, the upgrades install three-wave barriers and road restraint systems designed to redirect and, where necessary, contain the vehicles. The projects include the installation of modern signalling devices, sensors for monitoring traffic and speed, new lighting and ventilation plants in tunnels, as well as noise barriers along residential roads and photovoltaic surfaces at gas stations. Overall, these safety enhancements will avoid the need to reduce speed limits on specific road sections and will allow the traffic to flow more fluidly, with reduced carbon dioxide emissions and less noise generated by road and highway traffic.

The safety projects will also seek to solve the mystery of the 1 865 metre Galleria Tremonzelli, the longest tunnel on the A19 highway between Palermo and Catania. It is known locally as the “Bermuda triangle of tunnels,” due to inexplicable phenomena observed by many road users. In the last two decades there have been dozens of anomalous occurrences reported in this tunnel, including car engines that turn off unexpectedly, inexplicable fires and sudden blackouts of the lighting in the gallery, all of which trigger dangerous accidents that in some cases resulted in casualties. Among the hypotheses put forward to explain the mystery, some are rather imaginative. They include the presence of extra-terrestrials or demons, unknown electromagnetic fields and secret experiments with unconventional weapons.

New roads lead to the EU

Many of the road projects carried out by the Bank inside the EU today are aimed at upgrading highways that have been around for decades, like the ones in Italy. Often this involves making the highways more environmentally sustainable and safe. Outside the EU, however, there are still major highways under construction with EIB financing in Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Armenia.

By the time the Treaty of Rome is seventy years old, Valentine, the Bank’s roads division chief, believes technology will have transformed the kinds of vehicles using the roads. Driverless cars will make it possible for urban centres to become more environmentally friendly and less crowded. At the same time, highways will develop new “smart” technologies that control traffic flows and get drivers to their destinations quicker. “As a division, we need a very wide range of skill sets to analyse all these different approaches,” he says. “It’s all about building the assets to help the economy develop and to facilitate trade.” That, after all, is the same mission the Bank was fulfilling in southern Italy sixty years ago.