Longstanding controversy over a section of the European E16 road passing through the Lærdal region will be referred to the Norwegian parliamentary audit committee. On Tuesday it was revealed Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) leader Liv Signe Navarsete, who lived beside the potential E16 route, contacted the then Environment Minister shortly before he decided to reroute the road at a cost of millions.
Debate over the eight kilometre stretch of highway between Tønjum and Ljøsne had raged for years. The Lærdal council recommended a five and a half kilometre tunnel passing Ljøsne and taking a new route the entire way from Tønjum to Stuvane, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). The Sogn og Fjordane district which encompasses Lærdal and the public roads authority (Statens vegvesen) objected on the grounds a tunnel wasn’t economically viable, and wanted the new road to follow the existing route.
The case went to the environment department (Miljøverndepartementet) for a final decision. Navarsete, who lived just 300 metres from the existing road, made a personal call to then Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti) Environment Minister, Bård Vegar Solhjell. Days later, a week before the government was voted out last September, Solhjell authorised the tunnel plan. The tunnel route was about NOK 400 million (USD 64.8 million) more expensive than an upgrade of the existing road, and went against the roads authority’s advice.
Calls for review
“I think it’s a very special approach by the ‘red-green’ (former centre-left government coalition, which included the Socialist Left and Center parties), only days and weeks before they went out,” said Abid Raja of the Liberal (Venstre) Party, who sits on both the parliamentary audit and transport committees. “It may be this is a case we need to review closer in both committees.”
“The process they have taken, which the public didn’t know about before NRK broke the news, will cost the community half a billion,” he said. “I believe that’s indefensible.” Other politicians said it may mean the entire case has to go back to the drawing board.
Solhjell admitted Navarsete contacted him directly over the issue, but justified his decision. “If the road is not built through a tunnel it would affect an important residential area with a school road,” he argued. “In addition we save quite important agricultural and berry-growing land.” Raja countered that based on that argument, every road in Norway should be built in tunnels.
Navarsete denied any wrongdoing in contacting Solhjell over the case, saying she’s not affected by the road. “You clearly hear a road which lies between 300 and 400 metres away, but I’ve never felt the road has been noisy in the 14 years that I’ve lived there,” she argued. “But if I had pushed hard to get a tunnel, it would have been completely legal. I’m not a party to the case, so I’m not disqualified.”
Jan Geir Solheim, the Lærdal mayor and a party colleague of Navarsete, defended her actions and the decision to build the tunnel. “There was no doubt in the Lærdal council that this was the best option, and none of the methods we used in the evaluation showed where Liv Signe Navarsete lived,” he said.
Political commentator Magnus Takvam told NRK informal contact with other ministers over cases affecting a politician’s home region is normal, but this is a special instance because of Navarsete’s proximity to the controversial route. “She should probably have used better judgment, since it can be perceived as working for her own interests,” he said. “The reaction is probably split. People in that community think it’s okay, while critics will obviously make it a political issue.”
Legal and policy experts are divided over the case. Professor Jan Fridjov Bernt said Navarsete was probably competent in the matter, but should have asked others to assess her impartiality before she contacted the minister. Professor Frank Aarebrot said Navarsete made a “major blunder” by personally contacting her government colleague.