Thousands of kilometers to Euro 2012
On April 18, after Poland and Ukraine were chosen to host the European football championships in 2012, crowds took to the streets to celebrate.
Poland has a long way to go to get to where it can really celebrate, however. It needs to invest in a lot of infrastructure to handle the throngs the games will draw. Nowhere is that more apparent than in its highways.
Anyone who has traveled through Poland recognizes that the road system is among the worst in Europe. Every Pole would agree that major improvements are needed before the soccer games? first whistle is blown in five years.
Only 700 kilometers of highway cross Poland?s 320,000 square kilometers. That?s a density 10 times smaller than in the EU as a whole.
Belgium, which is 10 times smaller than Poland, has triple the kilometers of highways.
The poor condition of Polish roads is one reason its traffic-fatality rate is three times higher than in the EU as a whole ? 5,000 per year. Another reason is a high level of drunk driving, however.
The Ministry of Transportation says it opened 265 kilometers of highway in 2006, about a third of the country?s total. If true ? and some experts question the figure ? it would be a stunning achievement, far outstripping what any of the other 12 governments in Poland have done since communism ended in 1989.
The government says it plans a lot more construction, however. Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski?s administration committed at a recent press conference to building 1,100 kilometers of freeways and 2,800 kilometers of highways through 2015.
The standard definition of a freeway is two lanes in each direction separated by a median. A highway has two lanes with no separation.
When completed, the projects will give Poland three border-to-border motorways, two running east and west and one going from the south to the Baltic Sea.
The government says the plan should cost taxpayers of Poland and the EU about 164 bln zloty, or 43.7 bln euro.
News organizations question Transportation Minister Jerzy Polaczek?s cost figures, maintaining that when the smoke clears they will be much higher.
The ministry said each kilometer of highway should cost between 5.5 and 7 mln euro. However, the Rzeczpospolita newspaper quoted a highway-construction expert as saying that a kilometer already costs 8 mln euro — and the figure is rising.
Last year saw a surge in highway construction costs, partly because of rising materials costs. Poland is not producing enough materials to meet demand, leading to a shortage ? and thus higher prices.
Construction-worker salaries are jumping, too.
That?s because workers are flocking to the UK, Germany and The Netherlands to earn salaries three to five times more than they can get in Poland. That has led to Polish companies having to pay more.
Poland?s second-largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, contends that the highway-building will cost 35 mln more zloty than the government has estimated ? and the EU?s contribution to the project won?t be enough to cover the shortfall.
In addition to financing, another issue that threatens to delay the completion of highway projects is Poland?s public-works bid process.
By law, bids must be taken on major construction projects, including highways. If bids don?t meet specifications, or are way over cost estimates, new bids are ordered.
Contractors and construction-worker unions want a new law that makes bidding on highway work less costly and time-consuming.
But a bill has yet to be drafted in either the lower or upper house of Parliament. And parliamentarians will soon have a two-month-long holiday.
The Polish economy is growing at 5 percent a year, one of the best rates in Europe. A highway-building effort of the size the government is planning, combined with other construction related to Euro 2012, would make that growth rate even larger.
With annual growth of about 5 percent Poland is far beyond European average. According to an Ernst and Young report, it?s also the world?s second most popular country for investors behind China.
The Ministry of Economy said the Euro 2012 effort, including road work, should create about 100,000 jobs. Many will probably go to foreigners because 1.5 mln Poles are working in other EU countries.
Poland could turn into one giant construction site, so building companies should be the biggest beneficiaries of the Euro 2012 preparation work. They will be building sports stadiums and hotels, among other things. With 21 mln visitors expected to be in Poland for the games, tourism companies are also expected to cash in.