One week ago, a 200-meter span of a bridge in Genoa collapsed, killing 43 people. It was an unthinkable, terrible tragedy. Victims include kids, French tourists returning home, and three Chilean immigrants. You can read their stories here, I recommend that because whenever a disaster is becoming the center of a political firestorm (as in this case) it is always important to remember what is truly the most important thing: the lives that were taken away.

Why is the disaster becoming a political football? The bridge was operated by a private company, Autostrade per l’Italia, which is the offspring of the privatization of a large chunk of Italy’s highway network in 1999. The company is being held responsible by the government, with ministers speaking of revoking its contract or outright nationalization.

We still don’t know _why_ the bridge collapsed, and I suppose it will take a while for experts to understand the dynamics of the accident. An experts’ committee was instituted by the Ministry of Transport, though the independence of its “technical” members has been questioned. Clearly, it ain’t easy to be an expert in the field in Italy without having worked either with the Ministry (which is charged with monitoring the operating company) or with Autostrade. But still, hopefully, the dynamics will be understood at some point.

If Autostrade was not properly maintaining the bridge, it should be held accountable. The company has already promised half a billion euro in aid to the victims’ family and the city of Genoa (whose road conditions are now terribly compromised) and to build a new, steel bridge in eight months, pending the proper authorization. The government is dismissing that as an “empty gesture” to divert the public’s rage and flirts with the idea of nationalization. The general public is happy to conflate two different questions: who was responsible, and whether highways ought to be managed by private companies. The latter is portrayed as a consequence of “austerity” and tighter budget rules.

Since 2016 four (much smaller) bridges have collapsed in Italy, evenly split between private and government companies. One of them actually collapsed not very far from where my family lives, on a street that my parents take at least twice a day. Quite frightening.

My colleague Carlo Stagnaro has written an important letter to the Financial Times.

Writes Stagnaro:

In 2015 … Italy was the fourth-largest OECD spender in road maintenance (0.55 per cent of its gross domestic product), but the fifth-lowest in building new roads (0.31 per cent of GDP). Genoa may provide a case study. A project for an alternative highway that would have reduced the load on the Morandi bridge, and possibly bypassed it, has been around since 1984. Unfortunately, the final authorisation came only in 2017.

That is: we spend a lot to keep up with old infrastructure, but bureaucratic procedures make it impossible to build new, safer ones.