Bridges are forever. Bridges don’t crumble. Or do they? Beyond the tragedy they show, the pictures of the collapsed Polcevera viaduct in Genoa (the so-called Morandi Bridge, named after its designer) are disquieting: the rubble of the centre span in the valley is out of scale, the rescue teams moving about giant concrete blocks are the size of ants, and in the void between the useless remaining decks the sky suddenly seems endless. How can this happen?

Erudite comments given to reporters by politicians, transportation experts and professors of structural engineering are all more or less plausible, while the comment released by the concessionaire in charge sounds like a cynical joke: according to Autostrade per l’Italia S.p.A., the disaster could not have been avoided and was absolutely unforeseeable.

Most highways in Europe carry more and heavier traffic than was initially envisaged and therefore, the need for maintenance has increased dramatically. It is no secret either that all over the world there is a lack of funding for repairs and maintenance of infrastructure: even a rich country like Switzerland spends much less for this purpose than it ought to, in order to maintain the value, quality and safety of its infrastructure in the long term.

According to an edition on infrastructur of “Last Week Tonight”, an interesting, satirical (yet very serious) internet service by John Oliver, in the US alone there are some 74,000 bridges that are be considered “unsafe” or “dangerous”.

This simply means that our roads and highways, many of which were built over 50 years ago, are getting old and need more care, and that governments apparently do not have the money for proper refurbishment.

I believe that there is another reason why some highways are less safe than others. Italy is not the only country that has assigned the task of financing, constructing, operating and maintaining its roads, trains, hospitals, schools and prisons to separate bodies, in what has in recent decades  become one of the models of public private partnership (PPP).

In Italy, just after World War II, the “Istituto di Ricostruzione Italiana” (IRI) founded the “Società Autostrade Concessioni e Costruzini S.p.A.  The first convention signed between the Italian road authority ANAS and the latter in 1956 regarding the construction and operation of the highway Milan-Naples, opened to traffic in 1964. This is an understandable move by a responsible government in dire need of infrastructure to help the economy grow, and that lacks the funds to realize them with the necessary speed. Over the years, the company’s portfolio of concession has grown, and in 1987 the company went “public” (actually, from being owned by the state and therefore by the public, it went private, as from then on it was owned by private equity…). Today, “Autostrade per l’Italia S.p.A.” is owned by Atlantia, a major worldwide concessionaire that operates different kinds of infrastructures around the world.

Of course, a private owner or operator of a highway system has conflicting interests: it must satisfy its customers (those who pay at the toll gates), it must maintain the system until the end of the concession, and as any shareholder’s company, it must yield a dividend on the shares: it must make money. This is the first and foremost interest of a private company – the delivery of quality services is “only” a means to ensure sustainability of the financial endeavor. There lies the fundamental difference between a state owned (and operated) and a private infrastructure: the state must of course consider the allocation of the taxpayer’s money, but it need not pay a dividend.

Often, the state cannot do without private partnerships because it cannot afford to pay for infrastructures that are inevitable to its functioning. However, we should be aware of the conflict of interest that a private company faces when it comes to the long term operation of such infrastructures, and of the dangers this may lead to.