Warning on infrastructure

Written by Marla Thomson

Warning bells are ringing again for the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to address the status of the country’s infrastructure. Roadways, waterways, viaducts, train tracks, bridges – including the vitally important Delta Works at the mouth of the Rhine river – are in dire need of maintenance, repair and in some cases replacement. Members of many industry organizations, including Bouwend Nederland, ANWB (the Royal Dutch Tourist Association) and Transportation & Logistics Netherlands fear the delay in the country’s infrastructure repairs and upgrades, coupled with the growth in long-haul mobility, will create serious issues in the near future, including road and bridge closures, and will cost the economy millions of euros in lost revenue.

This is not the first time the Ministry has been notified of the substandard status of the Kingdom’s infrastructure. Trade organizations in this sector have repeatedly called on the Ministry to address the increasing backlog of maintenance and renovation projects, but now fear that the continued deferred upgrades pose a threat to the safety of motorists and travelers, as well as increase the risk of road, waterway and bridge closures. This could have a significant effect on the economy and accessibility of many areas of the Netherlands. It is estimated that if one major artery of the roadway or one major node in the rail system would have to be closed suddenly, the cost could run into several millions of euros per day. Bridges may be in danger of collapse, risking the safety and lives of travelers. The country manages around 1100 bridges, 2900 viaducts and 27 tunnels with roughly half needing some kind of maintenance, repair and in some cases even full replacement. Currently, Rijkswaterstaat (the Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management within the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management) is planning to renew just ten roads, thirteen bridges and eight tunnels in Zuid-Holland and even these are running behind schedule. As the delays increase, so does the need for immediate attention. A comprehensive and urgent agenda needs to be formulated to prevent structural failures and increasing risks. In the meantime, the number of damage claims has increased from 521 claims in 2014 to 955 in 2018, signaling that the risks are real and current.

Dutch civil engineering, infrastructure and long-haul logistics are some of the best in the world, with the country boasting some of the great modern engineering marvels, including the Delta Works, the Zuiderzee Works and the Afsluitdijk. However, a significant part of the network was built in the 1960s and 1970s and, although has been maintained since then, an ever-increasing amount of traffic has travelled across it, and at higher weights. This increase has put additional strain on the motorways, overpasses, bridges et cetera, accelerating the wearand- tear and need for upgrades and renovations. Dutch infrastructure might be world-renowned, but without fast and decisive action its reputation might shift from being one of the best to being one of the least stable. As Maxime Verhagen of Bouwend Nederland, the sector organization for builders, says: “It’s not whether, but when highways will close unexpectedly.” The trade organization and the Court of Audits call the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to intervene and quickly. Members have offered to work with the Ministry to develop a plan to address the delays, backlogs and imminent needs. There is also a call for more money to be allocated to the undertaking. Fortunately, the Ministry acknowledges the budding crisis and is taking some steps; Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen is calling it the “biggest renovation task in history”. However, although several meetings with the government have taken place on this subject, definitive action has yet to be determined.

With Dutch motorists paying nearly 22 billion euros each year in taxes for their cars, they expect safe roads. However, not even 8 billion euros are spent yearly on the maintenance of the roads. The money is there; it only needs to be allocated and budgeted properly. But the problem is bigger than that: more attention needs to be given to the infrastructural needs of the Kingdom, and quickly. The problem will not solve itself and it will not go away. If it is not addressed, the problems will grow at an exponential rate. The longer-term effects could be very costly to the economy, businesses that rely on a well-functioning infrastructure and the safety of those who use the network in the Netherlands.