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The Mother of all Motorways

The motorways of Italy are born and die in the Macro-region. Italy’s first ever motorway was built here, to link the capital of the plains to the lakes in the north, the “Milano-Laghi” in the 1920s, and it was here, in the early years of the new millennium, after 40 symptom-free years, that the latest strain of the virus emerged, the BreBeMi (Brescia-Bergamo-Milano). The Macro-region is also home to the Mother of All Motorways, the Serenissima, which connects the two ends of the region, going from the mountains to the sea. Code name A4: 517 bituminous kilometres stretching from Turin to Venice, the spinal cord of Padania, the only real connection between an area permanently destined to be fragmented.

“The A4 is Europe’s busiest motorway: around Milan it has peaks of as much as 140,000 vehicles a day.”

It is Europe’s busiest motorway: the middle section, between Milan and Brescia, sees more than 100,000 vehicles a day, with peaks of 140,000 around Milan. It is also a vast generator of polluted air, churning out concentrations of micro-pollutants that are second to none in Europe: the cities along the route are those with the highest quantities of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ozone and sulfur derivatives, to name but a few.

So: in the most congested area of Europe, holder of sorry records for the worst air quality, what action is taken to improve transport? In the Macro-region the answer is to build a new road to take yet more traffic into an area a few miles south of the main hot spot. Namely the A35, also known as the BreBeMi, as it links Brescia, Bergamo and Milan. It took nearly twenty years to come to fruition, from the first stirrings in the early 1990s to the official opening in the summer of 2014. It is the perfect example of the random yet voracious way these infrastructure projects continue to be hatched. First off: it is 64 kilometres long and cost 2.4 billion euros.

“The population of the Macro region is 19.300.000. Each person can count on 1,8 meters of paved road.”

The Big Cuttlefish
The attachment for the various works undertaken in the Macroregion manifests itself in the nicknames that are tenderly associated with constructions. It can for example happen that a convoluted system of junctions and spur routes, conceived to connect a beltway to a freeway – in this case the BreBeMi – comes to be called the Big Cuttlefish. A low-budget movie marine monster, an organism whose uncontrolled growth is followed with scientific passion: even though the brain is underdeveloped, the same cannot be said of its unpredictable and fascinating bituminous appendices, constantly expanding along the journey towards Disaster.

Minus the interest payable on the loans, that makes 1.8 billion, compared to an initial estimate of 800 million. And in actual fact it does not connect cities or defined areas, but marginal fragments. It starts in the middle of the cement-laden countryside and ends up in Milan’s commercial and industrial hinterland, bled dry by the recession. It was built in one of the few areas where there was actually room for it, confirming once more how the Macro-region abhors a vacuum. If you see it on a map, you can just imagine the planners: “Let’s put a straight line here, in this empty space”. As for the utility and sustainability of the project, the initial data is clear: early figures show average figures of about twenty thousand vehicles a day, compared to the 60,000 needed to break even.

If the A4 is the Mother, the BreBeMi is a neglected daughter, haggling with the matriarch to get her fair share of cars and trucks. At a very high price, both environmentally and economically. Although it was originally supposed to be commissioned and financed by the private sector, supported by project financing and in theory not a drain on public resources, in actual fact it is supported by a loan of 820 million from the (largely state owned) Cassa Depositi e Prestiti, and a top-up of 700 million from the European Investment Bank. If the company that runs the A35 is not able to repay the loan, in spite of applying tolls that are higher than usual market rates, the money will come out of the public pocket. And in part it is already: given the obvious unsustainability of the business plan, that private funds only made a minor contribution to, the State, just a few months after the road opened, handed over a total of 360 million euros of government and regional funds. The environmental cost is multi-faceted: 900 hectares of farmland have been swallowed up, the landscape is scarred by yet more tarmac, in line with the precept of ‘new road equals development’, and there is the ever present risk of yet more pollution poisoning the land it crosses.

Tenaris Dalmine
Tenaris Dalmine, once known as Dalmine Spa, manufactures steel products like tubes, gas tanks and car component out of iron scraps. It is located on the Big Turn of the Great Mother, and the night endows it with a sense of mystery and fascination.

“The sole purpose that the BreBeMi has served to date has been that of burying refuse”

“The sole purpose that the BreBeMi has served to date has been that of burying refuse”, stated Roberto Pennisi, Prosecutor for the National Anti-mafia Department, to the Parliamentary Commission investigating illegal activities related to waste disposal. This was borne out by the first inquiry, carried out before the motorway was even completed, regarding the presence of illegal waste along the route.

The Serenissima and the Autostrada del Sole, the A1 which connects Milan to Naples, were built on virgin, undeveloped land. The last project of this kind was the A31 Valdastico in the Eastern Macro-region, completed in 1976. The 1980s saw the construction of the motorway from Turin to the Frejus tunnel which links Italy and France, and lesser connections like that between Asti and Cuneo, also in the Western Macro-region.

The novelty of the BreBeMi lies in its interstitial nature, the fact that it exploits a lack in infrastructure connections to Milan, south of the A4, yet without there being a genuine need to do so, or indeed a plan for the economic development of the area. The Mantua-Cremona motorway links two small conurbations in the southern area of the Central Macro-region, a journey which only takes an hour on normal roads, while the Broni-Mortara is designed to link three different existing motorways south of Pavia, and the Pedemontana Piemontese-Lombarda-Veneta is a sort of secondary A4 that runs by the mountains, in the area north of the A4.

“In the Macroregion air pollution takes people up to three years of life and kills around 300 per year in the central macro-region alone.”

Everything Everywhere: like the Cispadana, which is set to link Parma and Ferrara and give the landlocked southern areas of the Macro-region a route to the seaside. Everything Everywhere, but going nowhere. The exploitation of unoccupied marginal areas continues, with the construction of new road links designed in accordance with the philosophy of Everything Everywhere.