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Russia missed out on chance to improve its roads

Infrastructure spending rose during boom times but failed to trickle down to the roadways partly due to graft. The abysmal network has become a drag on the economy and a horror story for truckers.

July 15, 2009|Megan K. Stack

VASILEVO, RUSSIA — Truckers with empty tanks or bellies stop here in this hamlet between Moscow and St. Petersburg, climb to the ground, stretch their legs and poke a cigarette between their lips.

The drivers are worn out from grinding over the potholed, shoulder-less, often two-lane ribbon that is, improbably, Russia's main commercial thoroughfare. They haul the parts and pieces of a vast economy -- chicken legs, coils of rope, dinner plates -- over roads so jarring the cargo is often damaged before it arrives.

Nobody is more keenly aware of the corroded state of Russia's transport infrastructure than the country's truckers, who earn their pay traversing broken highways and improvising where roads don't exist.

"Thirty-one years I've been driving, and the roads have gotten worse," said Valery Gorbunov, a beefy trucker with a mouth full of gold teeth and a truck full of pears.

"The way they do repairs, they just put a patch on top of another patch."

Over the last decade, as Vladimir V. Putin presided over an oil-rich, newly assertive nation, outside observers marveled at Russia's resurgence. But daily life inside the would-be superpower is still strained by mundane, fundamental failures.

As anybody who has tried to explore the country by car can testify, Russia's abysmal road infrastructure is perhaps the most pointed reminder of all the things left undone during long years of economic boom.

Outside the major cities, the roads are harrowing -- narrow and perilously pitted with potholes; groaning with cargo trucks; edges dropping off abruptly onto earth without a shoulder.

Even fresh pavement often ripples in waves, which are often coated with winter ice, sending tires skidding back and forth. And in many parts of Russia, the roads are simply unpaved.

Although spending on infrastructure has tripled over the last few years, drivers and experts agree that the cash has failed to trickle down meaningfully to the roadways, partly because it got snared in local corruption.

And now, with the GDP shrinking and the International Monetary Fund predicting zero economic growth in 2010, there is a growing fear that Russia may have squandered its best chance to reinvent itself.

"This time was irretrievably wasted," said Viktor Dosenko, vice president of the International Transport Academy in Moscow. "We missed these favorable conditions, and we can't expect them to return."

Having dedicated his career to studying, planning and lobbying for the construction of roads, Dosenko is a deeply discouraged man.

Russia has about 400,000 miles of general-use road, he says, far short of the roughly 1 million miles most experts think the country needs. The government is planning to build up to 5,000 new miles of road by 2015.

"It's nothing," Dosenko said with a sigh. "I'm ashamed to even mention these figures. And given the financial crisis, I believe that even these totally insufficient plans are in danger."

It's true -- the Russian government has been forced to shave its budget, reallocating money and dipping into the emergency funds set aside during times of plenty. Funding for transportation infrastructure has already been cut by nearly a third.

"It's a huge restraint," said Anton Geidt of GiprodorNII, Russia's largest road and bridge planning company.

In recent years, as oil and natural gas prices swelled, many here seemed to think that Russia would keep getting richer for the foreseeable future. Smart people in Moscow would talk about a tumble in the cost of oil and gas dismissively -- about what effect it might have if it happened, which of course it wouldn't, at least any time soon.

And so there was a sense, critics say, that there was no rush. The money was pouring in, and tomorrow would take care of itself. Roads stayed unpaved or nonexistent. The much-discussed modernization of the military was barely begun, let alone completed. Even infrastructure related to oil and gas was so badly neglected that Russia is now finding itself grappling with falling production numbers.

But the inaction has come at a cost: Shoddy roads are robbing Russia of about 3% of its GDP a year, according to government estimates. Transport costs account for about 20% of the cargo's worth; in other European countries, the cost is between 5% and 7%.

A staggering 30,000 towns and villages are without a year-round road link to the nearest administrative center.

"So in other words, there's no sense developing anything in those places," Dosenko said. "Because there's no way to bring what you produce to market, and no way to be supplied with spare parts and raw materials."

Over the last 20 years, Dosenko has taken a handful of work trips to neighboring China, watching with envy as the government built 600,000 miles of road while Russia fell further behind.

"It always gives me an internal pain," he said. "Why is it not happening in Russia? Why can't we do the same?"

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