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LRB: there are a number of idle plans with a possible goal to acquire EU money and divert attention

Andris Bērziņš/LTV
«It is not normal for EUR 100 million to be suddenly pumped into the road industry shortly before elections. By doing this, Transport Minister Uldis Augulis has hurt the road construction industry,» said Latvian Road Builders association’s chairman Andris Bērziņš in a conversation with BNN.

He says there are a number of all kinds of political planning documents, but none of them are actually implemented. «It seems more likely that these plans were prepared not to sort something in Latvia but because someone wants to visit Europe, divert someone else’s attention and acquire some EU money for roads,» says Bērziņš.
 

«Basically we are left with a broken through»

«The total length of Latvia’s road network is 74,000 km, whereas the total length of roads supervised by Latvian State Roads is 21,000 km. This means there is 53,000 km of unattended roads.»
 

Speaking of the situation in Latvia, Bērziņš says the country will have spent all the money provided by the European Union for road construction next year. Finances from the Cohesion Fund and Regional Development Fund will cover only three last projects that will be implemented in 2019. «2020 is the last in this planning period (2014-2020), but EU money will be zero.»
 

He says the government that had submitted the seven-year plan told Europe that if additional budget funds from the European Union are provided, Latvia will also increase the budget for the road sector. It was promised that Latvia would not perform road repairs using EU money. «This programme was accepted, but [Latvia’s commitments] were not complied with all these seven years. As a result, EU money was used ahead of time. The road sector, it seems, is the only sector in Latvia that has used EU money one year ahead of the end of the planning period. Basically we are left with a broken through, so to speak,» says Bērziņš.
 

«The amount of money planned in the state budget is very small, because this is the money provided from Latvia’s state budget. Additionally, this money needs to be divided – a part goes to municipalities, some EUR 53 million a year, a part goes to Latvian State Roads to finance road maintenance. Only one-third goes to restoration and road construction,» explains the chairman of LRB.
 

In regards to state funding for road repairs, Bērziņš says: ‘The budget the government approved is kept secret. We have no access to it and we don’t know the numbers’.
 

The association’s representative says ‘some numbers’ were uncovered through strategic research. On top of that, results show that the approved budget does not take into account the problems to be addressed in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
 

«If we intend to live only with what the state budget gives, the industry should be reduced by one-third, at least – some companies would have to close down.» Bērziņš says some claim road builders will have work with Rail Baltica. However, he believes these people do not take into account that construction may start no sooner than 2023. This means road builders will have to life for three years without work. He comments that in this case «there are no doubts the industry will no longer be the same as it was».
 

Political will is needed, and it has been absent for years. This includes will in the road sector.
 

«Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis reacted to the letter I sent him and formed a work group in March 2018. Members of this work group met some four or five times, outlined some directions and left it at that. No decisions were made,» said Bērziņš.
 

«In 2014, we signed a public agreement with all parties that were in power at the time, except for the National Alliance. The agreement stated that with the approval of the 2015 budget, those parties were to develop a road-financing model in a way to make it constant. Unfortunately, we were left only with promises. Nothing was done.»
 

Adding why it would be necessary to adopt a constant road-financing model, Bērziņš said it is possible for a situation to appear when rain continues non-stop for two months in a row, which would mean road maintenance crew are unable to work normally because of bad weather conditions. Because of this reason, it would be necessary to adopt a constant road-financing model.
 

«Everyone is waiting for deputies to approve a new budget. This is not a normal situation. If such a large infrastructure does not receive planned funding, we should consider a possibility for leftover money to transition to the next year – the same as municipal budgets,» says the representative of road builders.
 

«The most underdeveloped country in the context of Baltics»

When asked how Latvia looks in the context of other Baltic States with road maintenance, Bērziņš says Estonia’s provided funding is nearly two times larger than what Latvia provides. Lithuania’s funding is two and a half times larger. «I am not the least bit surprised roads there are better organized. Estonia will not have a single unattended road by next year. All roads there have asphalt cover or alternative solutions to asphalt. Lithuania is also doing well. Lithuanians come to us for work. They have some fluctuations in their home country, but if we look at the situation in general, we are the least developed country.»
 

He stresses that now is the last moment for strategic decisions to sort out road financing. «The level of awareness among politicians and officials is high enough – they only have to show some political will. I believe this political will is not something as abstract as deciding to send a delegation to Mars. It is not something apart from real life,» says LRB chairman.
 

53,000 km of Latvian roads ‘dangling in the air’
 

In regards to 74,000 km of roads covering Latvia, Bērziņš says for 15 years no one has looked at this matter regardless who owns roads – the state or municipality. He says two good programmes have been adopted to accomplish everything, but instead of performing a comprehensive evaluation of Latvia’s roads, Transport Ministry and Latvian State Roads, who are responsible for it all, instead think about several general mutually unrelated programmes included in political planning documents.
 

«Don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by not financing roads?»

«We rob our next generations by not putting down roads. I assume they will continue driving on roads, not fly around using drones. The next generation will have to pay two to three times more to keep the same roads in order than otherwise necessary,» explains LRB chairman.
 

«The government has increased excise tax on fuel. Drivers are forced to pay more and more to the budget. The money drivers pay to the state budget will have reached EUR 570 million this year. Of this amount, however, only EUR 230 million will return for roads. Additionally, this money will be divided further. We can expect no more than EUR 115 million being returned to the roads,» says Bērziņš.
 

He explains that the rest of the paid excise tax on fuel will be divided among teachers, doctors and others.
 

«Expenditures have to be financed somehow. But do we not shoot ourselves in the foot by not financing roads? Doctors have fewer and fewer people to work with, which also means they also earn less. Teachers have fewer children to teach, which means they have to consolidate classes and close schools. If politicians and those who are responsible for all these things look at the problem with roads and bridges not on their lonesome, but in context with everything else, it would become clear that problems with roads and bridges require other solutions,» says the former politician.
 

One step is made forward, but there is still a long road ahead

«As for the positives, I would like to say we have surveyed 74% of state roads and have concluded they are either in good or very good shape. We still have 26% to survey. But as I’ve said – those are only 21,000 km of 71,000 km,» said Bērziņš.

BNN

17-12-2018
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