Death and scandal over bad roads

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Norway’s notoriously inadequate road system has now left transport officials fending off claims of death and scandal. As a court case opened last week into an accident that cost the life of a father of two, with the road allegedly to blame, reports emerged that brand-new sections of highway literally are cracking up after just one winter. Tax- and toll-paying motorists are disgusted.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Transport Minister Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa attended ceremonies for the opening of the new stretch of the E18 highway that's now cracking up just four months later. PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor

Complaints have raged for years: Norway’s highways are mostly two-lane roads prone to head-on accidents, multi-lane highways are few and built on a piecemeal basis with only short stretches opening at a time, traffic jams remain even after new roads open because they’re under-dimensioned, and road-building is wildly expensive, with just a new eight-kilometer stretch of the E18 highway through Østfold costing NOK 1.3 billion (nearly USD 200 million).

Now, reported newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend, that new stretch of highway already has been seriously damaged by what the Norwegians call telehiv: Water gathered under the road’s top layer, and when it froze during the winter, it made the road buckle. Motorists liken it to a roller-coaster feel when driving. The problem has also occurred on several other stretches of new highway around southern Norway.

Highway officials, and the contractors that worked on the project, appear baffled. “We don’t have an overview over what’s happened,” project leader Bettina Sandvin of the state highway department (Statens vegvesen) told Aftenposten. “But everyone agrees that there shouldn’t be telehiv damage on a brand-new highway.” She won’t rule out that the stretch of road around Hobøl, between Ski and Ørje, may have to be dug up again.

Most highways in Norway have no center divider, and maintenance is often inadequate. PHOTO: Views and News

Motorists who had looked forward to the new highway for many years, are dumbfounded. “This is almost like a bad joke,” Geir Johansen, who lives in nearby Askim and drives a lot around Østfold, told Aftenposten. The road opened only last November, with much pomp and even Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, and now it’s full of cracks and potholes. And this is the main highway between Oslo and Stockholm.

Across the border, Swedish highways are widely considered to be a joy to drive on. Most of the E18 highway on the Swedish side of the border is divided and multi-lane, and even the two-lane sections have wide shoulders making them nearly four-lane roads. “Norwegian highways are not very good,” said motorist Terese Syr, who suspects poor workmanship for the trouble at Hobøl. “They’re not like roads in Sweden.”

Call in the Swedes, or the Chinese
Lars Erik Hauer, director for roads and transport at the highway department, fielded questions from frustrated motorists in an online forum on aftenposten.no, and had to admit that Swedish roads are better and tolerate the same rough winters found in Norway: “We see that the Swedes are in fact better than us, and we want to learn more from them to reduce fatal accidents.”

Or, hopefully, the damage from telehiv. Hauer, however, claimed Norway will never be able to “build its way out of traffic problems,” because new ones crop up all the time. He noted that politicians in the cities are funneling money into improving public transport instead of roads. And recent increases in state funding still aren’t enough to offset years of neglect. He said that in April, his department will release an overview of how much would be needed. He claimed his department was building longer stretches of highway at a time, downplaying criticism over Norway’s longtime piecemeal approach that clearly is far more expensive than major highway projects that would have better economies of scale.

The issue of poor highway planning and construction in Norway has also come up in recent debates over use of money from the state Oil Fund. It’s mostly being invested in stocks and now real estate outside Norway, to fund future pensions, but calls are growing to use more of it to improve Norwegian infrastructure at home. Economists worry that will boost inflation, but one local economist recently proposed “thinking big” and actually putting out large bids for overseas firms to come to Norway and build large projects, instead of relying on Norway’s relatively small labour pool and number of contractors.

Terra’s chief economist Jan Andreassen suggested bringing in Chinese engineers and road builders. “They are better than we are at this,” he told Aftenposten earlier this month. “We’re not good at building roads and railroads in Norway, we need help. We need to look at the entire way road building is organized. The Chinese have won large bids in eastern Europe. We need to ease our rules and make it easier for foreign experts to win jobs here.” Having foreign workers do the job would reduce inflation fears and get the job done right, Andreassen suggested.

Bad road blamed for father’s death
Meanwhile, a court case unfolding in Akershus, west of Oslo, blames the poor condition of a road near Gjerdrum for a fatal accident that killed 45-year-old Cato Paulsen in June 2008. His motorcycle suddenly swerved into the oncoming lane, where he was hit by a truck. Highway authorities said he was riding too fast. His widow, Eva Skjøld Paulsen, doesn’t believe that, and blames potholes in the road and lack of warnings for the accident that claimed her husband’s life.

The case has caught interest in Norway, where accidents are generally blamed on alcohol or recklessness. Skjøld Paulsen’s case is supported by an national association for traffic victims, and her lawyer claims the accident would have been avoided if the road had been maintained or warnings posted. The defendants are the county, which legally owns the road, and Mesta Drift AS, the state firm charged with road maintenance.

Hauer of the state highway department called the accident “tragic” but declined comment because it was a matter for the court. Aftenposten reported Sunday that quality demands for new roads were removed in 2007, a move that the national automobile association called “a step in the wrong direction.” Highway officials claimed they needed flexibility in roadbuilding, and quality standards didn’t apply to all roads. NAF officials suspect the road owners, either local governments or the state, want minimum responsibility for them, while at the same demanding strict safety standards for vehicles and drivers.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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